Mark Eggleston—Egghead, to his students—kept scorpions in a terrarium in the back of his lab to illustrate predator-prey relationships and to instill in his young charges a sense of respect for animals smaller than themselves. “Everyone,” he said, “respects lions and tigers. But arthropods just don’t get their due. We’ll see about that.”
Students, assigned alphabetically to feed the scorpions from the moths that gathered in huge numbers below the arc lamp outside his lab, found this detail a dangerous imposition, as each was required to lift the cage lid, which, all by itself, could cause heart failure. Every one of them, big linebackers included, complained loudly, both at school and at home. “Won’t they spring out and bite me?”
To this recurring question, Eggleston always answered, “Their bite is insignificant. The sting is what you must avoid.”
To which the students usually said, “Won’t they spring out and sting me?”
“I removed their spring-bones,” he answered. “But not their stingers. So give them plenty of space.” None of this gave students any sense of safety, and that suited Eggleston’s need to engender terror among the “sheltered, nature-illiterate little rascals” that he had to teach.
In response to numerous administrative warnings, mainly from Jim Davenport, the Principal, about student safety and lack of insurance coverage, Eggleston agreed to dispose of his rattlesnake and his small coral snake, but he found it unreasonable to discard the scorpions, in part because it was so difficult to replace the Asian specimens. He admitted that they were the most likely to be lethal, but who was planning a trip to Thailand to get new ones? He cautioned the students to keep their protestations quieter. “Don’t spoil it for the arachnids,” he said. “They’re living decent lives. Better than some of you.”
Eggleston taught AP Biology. He loved teaching, but he took strong exception to the AP syllabus and had grown tired of teaching to the exam. At forty, he had begun to acquire some of the crankiness of much older teachers. At first, most of his students recoiled at the rigor of the course, but they quickly learned to like and admire Eggleston for his single mindedness and creativity. Every class included some clever experiential element that they learned to anticipate with joy.
The brightest of Eggleston’s students, Eric McCleod, went by “Cloudy.” He, more than any other, was able to manipulate Eggleston, although not much. One day he stayed after class to complain. “I’ve studied all night and I’m still not ready for the test. Can’t we put it off for a couple days?”
“What?” said Eggleston. “Are you kidding?”
“What’s the rush?”
“Because we have to do the whole freaking syllabus. We can’t keep putting tests off. I told you on the last one, that was it. From now on we’re keeping to the schedule. Bang, bang, bang. And by the way, you forgot to feed the scorpions. They’re dying over there.”
“I didn’t forget. I’m just up to my armpits studying for the test.”
“Well, feed the scorpions. And don’t get stung. I don’t have time for it.”
“Nobody has time for those stupid animals.”
Mr. Eggleston shook his head and sighed. “At least you recognize them as animals. We’re so mammocentric.”
“You mean mammals? Or mammaries?”
“You’re a rude child, Cloudy. Your mother was raised by monkeys.”
“I’ll tell her you said so.”
“I’m sure you will. And tell her I love her. But the test goes on as planned. Tomorrow morning. Don’t miss it.” Eggleston had a crush on Cloudy’s mom, but from enough distance that it could be joked about.
“I’m not feeling very well this afternoon.”
“Feed the scorpions. That’ll make you feel better.”
“It will. Do it.”
“I’ll be back next bloc, Egghead.”
“Buzz off, Cloudy. I’ll feed the scorpions.”
“Thanks, Egghead. I knew you’d see it my way. So, we’re putting the test off till Friday, right?”
“In your dreams.”
“Only if you feed the scorpions.”
“God, you and your freaking scorpions. Someone’s gonna get killed around here. Okay, I’ll feed them. Geez.”
“Thank you, Eric the Red.”
“If you feed—.”
“Want me to tell the others?”
“Yeah, but blame it on yourself, not me. It wasn’t my idea. We’re going ahead into photosynthesis.”
“Can’t we review?”
“I don’t need it.”
“Well, not for you, Egghead. For us. We all need more time.”
“Oh, well, when I invent my time machine, you can borrow it.”
Cloudy lifted the lid of the scorpion cage and tossed a couple live moths into it. “Thanks, Egghead. I love you, man.”
“God in Heaven,” said Eggleston. “You get weirder every day. Tell your mother I want to have coffee with her some Saturday.”
“You just said she was raised by monkeys. Tell her yourself.”
Cloudy’s mom, Julie Leitner-McCleod, was not the prettiest woman in the neighborhood. But damn near. Only Fitzy Gurman outclassed her, with longer legs and hair from the Republic of Something or Other. Julie took pride in her appearance and expected everyone else to hold her in the same extreme regard in which she held herself. No one spends that much time in the mirror without reaping a reward.
Julie had been in to visit Eggleston more than once that fall. He, being single and at the edge of desperate, was taken by her charismatic balance of coyness and charm, not to mention her low cut blouses that seemed to say, “Oh, my goodness! Did I forget my bra again?”
When Cloudy’s grade dropped below the B-minus level, Eggleston knew that Julie would drop in for a conference. Her brilliant son, who, according to family expectations would be a doctor, needed a B-or-better on his transcript. It would be Julie’s job to see that the grade went north when things got dicey. “B-or-better,” she always stressed.
When Julie came in that week, carrying her breasts in thin nylon, the conference went on a bit longer than necessary. Her easy laugh and wondering fingertips made Eggleston keep finding issues to discuss. How was Cloudy studying? Did he have a study buddy? Would a little tutoring help? Maybe at her home? Clearly, this was not appropriate, but maybe if he offered to do it without remuneration? Or at least, without money? “I only want to help,” he said. “I mean, the boy has a lot of promise.”
Julie smiled. Eggleston, she tried to believe, was doing everything right as long as her son had the B-or-better on the transcript. But that seventy-eight needed attention.
“I suppose you could drop by on Saturday,” said Julie. “But that’s after the test, isn’t it?”
“Oh, well, I could always postpone the test until Monday,” said Eggleston. “There’s no rush to finish the syllabus.”
“Well, Saturday, then. Shall we say, maybe, ten o’clock?”
“Ah, well, the morning’s not so good for me. Can we make it later? Maybe five?” Perhaps she’d extend a dinner invitation.
“Five is good. I should tell you that my husband’s out of town.”
Eggleston sat up straighter in his rolling office chair. “Oh, I didn’t realize. Is that okay? I mean, I don’t want to suggest—”
“No, no, no,” Julie laughed. “Of course, it’s fine. Five o’clock, then.” She put a hand flat on Eggleston’s desk as she rose, leaning forward, smiling with her breasts. “I can see myself out.” As she passed the scorpion cage, she turned with a worried look. “Are these the scorpions?”
“Yes,” said Eggleston, standing up. “They’re pets. They won’t hurt anyone.”
“I thought scorpions were poisonous.”
“Not these. I removed their stingers.”
Friday came and went. One of Eggleston’s students, Nancy Berrien—a first name that hadn’t cropped up in at least fifty years—enjoyed the AP class more than most, but she’d forgotten her textbook and came in after school to pick it up.
Like Cloudy, Nancy wanted to be a doctor, but thought she might specialize. “I might be a surgeon,” she suggested as she unpacked her bag to make room for the heavy text.
“Really?” said Eggleston, straightening his desk. Truth was, he could spot a wannabe from a mile away. She wasn’t in line for medical school, mostly based on her temperament—spoiled and impudent—and her study habits—lazy. “What kind of surgery interests you?”
“I don’t know, probably brain. Maybe kidneys.”
“Hmm, those are pretty different. Why surgery?”
“Surgeons get respect. These days, anyone can be a doctor.”
Eggleston stroked his tired face. “Well, the average age of entrants to medical school is about twenty-nine, so I think a lot of them get weeded out early. Not that there’s any shame in going into a lesser field of medicine. I mean, you might do well as a physical therapist. Maybe for Olympians.”
“Give me a break. If I don’t make a quarter million in the first year, I’ll never get out of debt.”
“If you’re in debt.”
“Of course I’ll be in debt. Med school costs a fortune.”
“But I mean if you didn’t go to med school. Maybe some related field. Nursing, maybe.” Eggleston felt it necessary to suggest something possible.
“Oh, cut me some slack, here. A nurse? Really? I can just see that in my fortieth reunion. Nurse Nancy.”
“Is it so degraded as all that? I mean, the world needs nurses. Think of Florence Nightingale. She wasn’t a doctor.”
“Whoever she was, she probably should have been a doctor.”
“Back then, girls couldn’t even think about being a doctor.”
“Well, they can now, and I’m one of ’em.”
“It sounds to me like the money is more important than helping humanity.”
“Well, I can’t help humanity broke, can I?”
Eggleston tired quickly of kids like this. “No, you’re right. Be a brain and kidney surgeon. Enjoy life.”
Nancy shouldered her backpack and huffed out of the room, leaving her textbook sitting where it had sat all afternoon. When he saw it, after she left, he picked it up and moved toward the door, then stopped and shrugged. “Screw it, brain surgeon. Your problem.”
Nobody fed the scorpions that day. In fact, it had been a few days since the last insect went into the terrarium. Eggleston picked up his briefcase and took a few steps, then remembered and dropped it. “Heck,” he said. “They’ll let ’em starve.” He scuffled back to the cage and fumbled for a moth, trapped in a cloth bag that hung nearby. But before he could close the bag, the door opened.
“Dr. Eggleston?” It was Julie Leitner-McCleod.
Eggleston turned to watch Julie enter the classroom and close the door behind her. As always, she wore her clothes tight. “Not doctor,” he said. “Just Mark is good. How are you?”
Julie smiled and held her hands out as if singing an aria. “I was passing by.”
Eggleston turned back to the moths. “I was just feeding these little beasts. The students neglect them.”
“Yeah. Poor things.”
Julie shook her head and smiled. “Poor venomous, lethal things.”
Eggleston laughed lightly. “Yeah, they are that.”
“Can I watch them eat?”
“Of course. Let’s see how hungry they are.” He fumbled for a whirring little insect, trapped it in his fingers, and lifted the lid. “You’ll have to be over here to see it.”
Julie moved closer to Eggleston and laid a hand lightly on his shoulder. “Where are they?” A ripple of hormones surged through Eggleston at her touch. His instrument hadn’t felt that charged for a long while.
“Probably under the sticks in the corner. We’ll see if they come out.” He released the moth, which fluttered weakly into the center of the cage.
Julie leaned forward, peering under the cracked lid, her face almost touching Eggleston’s. She held her breath. “Do they see it?”
“Dunno,” said Eggleston, more conscious of her hand and her face than the scorpions. “Wait and see.”
They waited. Julie’s fingers found their way to Eggleston’s lower back, but she pretended to be fixed on the arachnids. He, too, stared straight ahead, into the corner of the cage. When nothing happened, he straightened part way and turned to Julie. She turned also, until she directly faced him, about three inches away.
Eggleston’s eyes grew large and a little frightened. Julie’s hand wrapped the rest of the way around his waist. She tilted her head slightly and opened her lips. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,” she whispered, “if you’re married.”
He stared directly into her blue eyes, transfixed, unable to move.
“Are you married?” she asked.
“No,” he whispered back. “But you are.” This was a first for Eggleston.
Julie grinned. “Don’t worry about it.” She moved still closer, until her lips touched his. Eggleston stood frozen, feeling her tongue tease his upper lip and probe gently between his teeth. It seemed too outrageous to be real, but within a couple of poignant seconds, he took her in a full embrace, returning her gestures and melting completely at her touch. He bent her willing body back across the table and instinctively found her breasts, which seemed, as always, too available, with both hands. She gasped weakly and continued the long, wet kiss. “Oh, Mark,” she sighed. “You bad boy.”
The door suddenly cracked open, very quietly, and Nancy strode in, picked up her book, and almost turned to leave before she realized what she’d seen. “Holy crap,” she sneered. “Word.” And she backed out the door.
“Wait!” cried Eggleston. “It’s not like… Oh, shit!”
For the first time in his life, Eggleston felt vulnerable. His favor among the students suddenly seemed threatened. How could he have allowed himself to be so careless? Why couldn’t he wait until the weekend, maybe on some picnic table in the pines or something? But no. He had to freaking make out with a mother in his lab. What a dolt. Surely Nancy would pass this titillating bit of news to everyone in school.
But three days passed without a single word from Nancy. Still, he dreaded the inevitable humiliation. During those days, he went about his tasks with quiet deliberation, quickly grading papers and returning them without comment. He worked through lectures mechanically, nervously, avoiding eye contact with Nancy, who seemed unaffected by what she’d seen.
Nancy didn’t mentioned the incident in class, but once or twice he thought he saw her grinning slightly, turning away from him. Or did she grin at something else? Was there a joke he didn’t hear? He couldn’t read her, but he anticipated trouble at every glance.
Cloudy did well on the next test, much better than Nancy. When he handed the papers back, he said to Cloudy, “Good job on that one.”
Nancy smirked a little and said, “That would be the tutoring?”
Eggleston froze for a moment, then said, “Tutoring?”
Nancy broke a smile. “Hey, Cloudy? You have a tutor?”
“No,” Cloudy shook his head, then shrugged, “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“I thought maybe Egghead went to your house on weekends.”
Cloudy shook his head in confusion. “No.”
Eggleston waved it off. “I don’t tutor my own students.”
“Ah,” said Nancy. “No tutoring, then.”
From that moment, Eggleston knew that Nancy had formed a plot and would not let the matter lie.
As predictably as clockwork, Nancy came into Eggleston’s room that day after school. She closed the door and stood facing him for a few seconds. He stared back at her but said nothing.
“I’d like to go over this test,” she said. “I still have questions.”
“Which test?” said Eggleston.
“The one we just got back,” said Nancy. “The only one we’ve had in the last month.”
Eggleston stood and tentatively approached the table where Nancy waited, holding her papers limply by the corner. “Which questions?”
“Well, first off, that was Cloudy’s mom in here the other day after school, right?”
Eggleston sighed heavily, partly out of anxiety and partly out of relief that it had come up and might be dealt with. He pinched the corners of his eyes. “Look, Nancy—”
“No, I just wondered. I mean, you’re both adults.”
“Well, good. That was a foolish moment on my part. Very embarrassing. You shouldn’t have seen it.”
“But I did.”
“Yes, I know that. But it was indiscreet and rude of me to do that, here, in this classroom, where students might come in. I’m very sorry that it happened.”
“Yeah, I wonder… I wonder if Principal Davenport cares about that sort of thing.”
Eggleston gasped. “Well, no. I don’t know. But, Nancy, look, it was just an awkward moment. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t. But still… ”
“Oh, Nancy, it was nothing. Surely you don’t need to mention it to Mr. Davenport. I could lose my job. It was nothing.”
Nancy held an index finger to her lips and rocked her face forward on her hand. “Hmm. Well, I haven’t said anything yet.”
Eggleston sighed again. “Look, Nancy. Look. If I had that moment to live over, it would never have happened. It was one tiny, stupid little moment in time. It was injudicious, a mistake. Everyone makes little mistakes. You make mistakes. Let’s don’t blow it all out of proportion.”
“Well, I don’t know. I’m just a stupid student. I don’t know it if scarred me to see you with her.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Nancy. Don’t do this. It didn’t scar anything. It’s a normal part of life, just in the wrong place. Don’t make an issue of it.”
“I’m at a very impressionable age.”
Eggleston sighed yet again, running out of explanations. “Look, can’t I just implore you to let this one little indiscretion slide?”
Nancy looked around the room. “I don’t know. How about a recommendation?”
“Oh, yes!” said Eggleston. “I’d be so happy to do that. I can write you a very powerful rec that will help your college admission. Premed. That’s it. I’m happy to do it. I can start it right away. Will that help?”
“And maybe re-grade this test a little?”
“Re-grade it? You mean, like, fudge the score up?”
“Well, since I understand where my mistakes are, I’ve learned more than this grade says, haven’t I?”
“Uh, well, yes, I guess. Uh, it’s not a race, it’s about learning. If you’ve learned through the process, I guess that might count for a few points in the book. Surgeon’s advantage or something.”
“Maybe an A-minus? And maybe not bother the students any more about the scorpions?”
Eggleston drew in a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. He couldn’t believe how easily he’d allowed himself to be bent to Nancy’s perverse will. “Okay, well, I can always feed them. Maybe they’re outlived their usefulness, anyway.” A silence followed. “Are we good then?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Nancy, turning to the door. As she left, she looked back with a nod. “I’ll pick up the rec in the morning.”
That night, Eggleston started Nancy’s recommendation. He borrowed the first couple of lines from his oft-used list of recs, beginning with, “It is my great pleasure to write in recommendation of Nancy Berrien, an excellent student and a quick learner.” Then he paused. Usually, these sorts of letters weren’t shared with students. They signed waivers. He sat in silence for a few moments.
It occurred to him that he had the power to completely torpedo Nancy’s applications. What if he said, in so many words, that she coaxed this rec from him in exchange for silence on a private matter? It was blackmail, after all. Why should she benefit from it? This could be his revenge.
He typed a second line. “However, in addition to biology, she has learned to manipulate the system to get what she wants rather than what she deserves.” Wow. That was a zinger. Then he continued, “Because she caught me, once, in the lab with another student’s mother, she thought it was her prerogative to ask for this recommendation in exchange for keeping mum before the Principal.” Ooh, that laid it out there, but a little too directly. He didn’t want to impugn himself while addressing her problems.
Then it occurred to Eggleston that Nancy might unseal the envelope and read the letter, which would cook him for sure. She’d go straight to Davenport.
In the end, he wrote a standard rec, with a little stronger pitch than he’d normally make. That way, if she read it, he’d be off the hook. Then he changed her test grade to a 90, A–, and made a note to feed the scorpions.
Days passed uneasily. Eggleston prepared a draft résumé, just in case he could ease out of teaching gracefully, with as little said as possible. He began thinking about other careers. Maybe he could consult or work for the Parks District, or as a docent at a museum.
Cloudy came by again to ask about the Calvin Cycle, then mentioned the scorpions. “How come you never bug us about your prize arachnids anymore? Is it my turn to feed them?”
Eggleston shook his head. “No, I’m feeding them.”
Cloudy nodded. “Great. Mom says you should come by the house tonight. She has a surprise for you.”
Eggleston sat in a fog. “I don’t know. I’m pretty busy.”
“I told her you said she was raised by monkeys.”
“Oh. Well, I’ve said a lot of things.”
Cloudy sat silently for a few moments. “You don’t seem yourself. Are you sick?”
Eggleston smiled distractedly. “No, I’m fine.” He raised a hand, absently. “Uhm, tell your mom I can’t make it tonight, though. Maybe another time.”
“She’ll be sorry. She wants to bribe you to get my grades up.”
“Up to where? You’re already in the high B’s.”
“She thinks I need an A.”
“Okay. Tell her it’s an A.”
Cloudy sat up straighter. “Really? Seriously?”
“I’m sure you’ll ace the next test. That’ll do it.”
“Wow, you’re getting nicer by the week.”
“Not really. Probably just weaker by the week.”
The next day, Friday, Principal Jim Davenport stuck his head into Eggleston’s classroom door. “Hey, Mark,” he said. “Can I see you after class? Or maybe at lunch?”
“Oh, uh, sure,” said Eggleston. “Lunch, maybe. Cafeteria?”
“Yeah, or, hell, let’s go down to Chipotle.”
So, here it is, thought Eggleston. He’ll fire me while I’m eating a burrito. He remembered a teacher a few years back who was fired for putting his hand on girls’ backs when addressing their questions. A dull nightmare of pathos overcame him, imagining that he would not only lose this job, but be blacklisted from any other teaching jobs as well. But he soldiered on through classes all morning, acting as if he were coming down with the flu. How could one moment of loose passion amount to such a disaster?
At noon, Eggleston listlessly picked up his lunch bag, then discarded it and walked slowly to the parking lot. Davenport waited by his car. “We’ll take mine,” he waved. Eggleston wandered over and got in.
“Okay, so, how are we?” said Davenport.
Eggleston shut the door and fumbled with his seatbelt. “I’m fine,” he said. “What’s this about?”
Davenport slid the gearshift into drive and looked around. “Well, Mark, it’s a little personal, and it’s a little delicate, actually.”
“Hmm. Well, let me begin by saying that I understand your situation as a single man. I’m single myself since my divorce, so I get it.”
“Yeah, well, I guess…”
“No, let me finish. I want to get it all out on the table so we can deal with it like adults. It’s about Mrs. McCleod, Eric’s mom.”
“Oh, really. I barely know her.”
“Oh? Okay, well, then let’s just get straight to it. You know, she’s estranged from her husband, so she’s pretty vulnerable, and I’m a little protective of people in that situation, having been there myself.”
“Well, I don’t think I—”
“No, no, just wait a minute. I’m just saying that I feel the need to watch out for her, and I’ve been, you know, right there to catch her as she falls, so to speak.”
“Yes, just to be sure she’s okay. It’s not common knowledge, but she and I have been seeing each other a few times, and, you know,” Davenport paused for a breath. “Here’s the awkward part that’s hard for me to bring up. I don’t want to seem overprotective or selfish, but I heard that you were also interested in her, and I think that I seriously got there first, if you know what I mean, and she’s not always too clear-headed about her situation. I don’t think it’s fair to have two of us fighting over her, you know. I mean, this is really stupid, I know, but I didn’t know how else to say it.”
Eggleston let a little silence stand, then ventured, “Who said I was with Mrs. McCleod?”
Jim wrinkled his nose. “Ah, well, it’s confidential. I mean, I can’t say who told me. But you can’t very well deny it.”
“What did they say I did?”
“Well, it was just… I think it was… I mean, it was… intimate. That’s close enough.”
“Oh, come on, man. You know what I’m talking about. You can’t get close to a woman like that and not remember it.”
“Well, I’ve been in the same room with her, if that’s intimate. But we don’t have any sort of relationship. She’s interested in her son’s AP Biology grade.”
“How so, interested?”
“What? I don’t know. She just cares if he does poorly. She wants him to be a doctor, so she comes in now and again to see if there’s anything she can do to help.”
“Like what kind of help?”
Eggleston felt like he had gained some firm footing. “Just checking his grades. She comes in to see if he needs a tutor.”
“Do you tutor him?”
“Of course not. He’s my student. I can’t tutor my own students.”
“So you don’t go to her house to tutor him?”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course not. Geez, Jim.”
“Okay, well, if you deny it.”
“What’s to deny? Who said I ever went to her house?”
The two sat in silence for a while. Then Jim said, “Okay, all I really want is your word that you’re not involved with my girlfriend. That’s all I care about. No visits. No intimacy.”
“Absolutely. Although, now that you mention it, I think it’s a bit curious that you’re so possessive of her. I mean, it’s her life. It’s her choice. If I wanted to visit her, I have every right. You can’t make rules like that about some mom in the community. It’s not part of the school. It’s not really your bailiwick.”
Jim stared straight at the road. “I just wanted to have a gentlemen’s understanding, since I have a close relationship with her. It wasn’t intended to be a hard rule of some kind. I just have evidence that you’ve been with her while I’ve been with her, so I wanted to clear the air.”
“I’ve never been with her.”
“Well, I have a witness who says that you have.”
“I can’t say, but she’s a good one.”
“Well, if I were you, I’d question your witness. Maybe she has something to gain by making up a story like that.”
“How could a student dream up such a story?”
“Are you kidding me? Have you watched TV in the last twenty years? It’s any average soap opera, isn’t it? She can put me in a vulnerable spot, setting me up against you. Who was it?”
“I’m not saying, and I’m also not going to have lunch with you.” Davenport made a U-turn and headed back to school.
When Eggleston got out of the car, he said, “Question your witness, man. I’m clean. You don’t have to worry about me and Mrs. What’s-her-name. God, that’s embarrassing to even think about.”
Jim walked a little angrily, Eggleston thought, to the cafeteria. Eggleston returned to his lab to recover his lunch from the trash.
That night, Eggleston changed Nancy’s test grade back to the C+ she had earned, and posted online a new feeding schedule for the scorpions.
When Cloudy came to class the next day, he said, “Hey Egghead, Mom says your surprise is going to get stale. You should come over and get it.”
Nancy walked in.
Eggleston smiled. “Stale? Is it a cake?”
“Maybe,” Cloudy grinned. “Maybe better than a cake.”
“Great,” said Eggleston. “When can I come over?”
“Any time. This afternoon.”
“I’ll call her. Okay, guys, let’s see how all that ATP works in photosynthesis.”
Nancy stood shocked, then approached Eggleston at the front of the room. “Did you change my grade?” she asked quietly.
“Excuse me?” said Eggleston.
“Did you change my test grade?”
“No,” said Eggleston, shaking his head. “I think you’ll see that the score on your paper is the same as in the grade book. I also posted a new feeding schedule for the scorpions, in case you didn’t check it out yet. You’re today.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Mr. Davenport didn’t buy your lame accusations. Better luck next time.” Then he turned to Cloudy. “I’ll be over after school.”
Nancy dropped her jaw like a California valley girl and returned to her seat without opening her book.
That afternoon when Eggleston finished cleaning up for the day, he walked to his car with a bounce in his step that he hadn’t felt for a week or more. Nearby, a group of girls huddled beside a pickup, Nancy in the middle. She watched him approach, then laughed a little and drew the other girls into conversation. He couldn’t resist the challenge. “Hey, Nancy!” he called. “Don’t forget your homework!” Then he backed out and turned toward Cloudy’s house.
Cloudy’s car was not in the driveway when Eggleston pulled in. Julie met him with an excited hug in the doorway. “Thanks for coming over. I baked something for you.”
Eggleston immediately fixated on Julie’s breasts, those magical bits of biology that weirdly transcended the physical plane, he thought, and brought meaning to life. “Where’s Cloudy?” he asked.
“He’s at football. Won’t be home till probably six. Come here.”
Eggleston followed Julie into the kitchen, where she lifted the top off a cake tray and stood beaming, pointing.
“My god,” said Eggleston, reaching. “It’s still warm. Did you just bake it?”
“Yeah, I did. We ate the other one.”
“You shouldn’t have gone to the trouble.”
“I love baking. Cloudy says you don’t get out enough.”
“Probably not. By the way, Julie, I wanted to apologize for last week in the lab. I don’t know what came over me…”
“Yeah, I know. That was my fault. Really awkward. But I loved it.”
“Of course, couldn’t you tell?”
“Well, I got so distracted by that girl coming in that it ruined the moment.”
“Yeah, I worried about that. Did you get in trouble? I hope it didn’t affect your work.”
“No, it’s all good. But I did want to run something by you. Jim Davenport called me in to talk about you. I guess the girl told him what she’d seen, trying to get me fired, maybe.”
“God, that man is impossible. He won’t go away. He won’t take no for an answer.”
“Oh, he made it sound like you two were, like, an item, and that I should stay away.”
“No, no, no. He keeps sniffing around. He’s divorced, you know, and I think he’s on the rebound, as they say. He always seems desperate. Creepy desperate. Come here.” Julie motioned for Eggleston to move beside her. “Come here. Come closer. I won’t bite.”
Eggleston took a few steps and stood staring.
“You want cake before or after?” said Julie staring back.
“Before or after what?”
Julie took Eggleston by the hand and led him to the bedroom. “Let’s eat after,” she said.
“Well, I…” Eggleston flushed red. “I wonder if… I mean… what if someone comes in?”
“I doubt if your students will walk into my bedroom.”
“No, but I mean Cloudy, or your husband.”
“Cloudy’s at school and my husband has moved to Miami. We’re alone here. Relax.”
That’s all it took. That and Julie’s fingers unbuttoning his shirt. He could hardly believe his luck. She turned to allow him to unzip her dress. “I’m so lonesome for this.”
“God,” he sighed as she wriggled out of her clothes. “You are absolutely incredible.”
Eggleston had just shed his pants, with Julie’s practiced help, when the doorbell rang.
“Holy shit,” he gasped. “There we go. Just what I thought.”
“Ignore it,” Julie moaned. “They’ll go away.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care. Don’t let this moment get away. Come here.”
“What if they come in?”
“Nobody has a key, Mark.”
“Well, hell, this is crazy.”
The doorbell rang again.
“Damn.” He sat on the edge of the bed in his skivvies, peering through the living room toward the front door. “Our cars are out there. They know we’re here.” He reached for his pants.
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, Mark. They’ll go away.” Julie sprawled on the bed like the playboy bunny she was, pulling a bedspread up, but only to her waist. “Mark. Come here.”
A long silence ensued, during which he held his pants in one hand and Julie’s knee in the other. “See,” she said. “They’re gone. Come here.”
A powerful banging sounded on the back door. That made Julie sit up. “Okay, buster,” she said. “Mark, you stay in here and don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of this.” The knock sounded again, louder and longer.
Mark got up and began dressing as Julie pulled a bathrobe around her and left the room. “Damn,” he muttered. “I gotta get outta here.”
At the back door, he heard Julie unleash with vindictive he hadn’t expected from her. “Jim! You parasite! What are you doing? This harassment has got to stop! Why are you here? I’m trying to take a nap! I’ve made it clear that I won’t tolerate this! I’ll call the cops!”
“A nap with Mark Eggleston’s car in the driveway? Really?”
“What business is it of yours whose car is in my driveway? I can have any guests I want in my house, you boar.”
“Well, fuck you, then, you whoring bitch!”
Up to this point, Eggleston was mainly interested in slipping out the front door and rolling his car quietly out the drive. But when he heard the whoring bitch remark, it yanked his Y-chromosome. He jerked his pants up and threw his shirt on, unbuttoned, and made for the back door.
“Who you calling a whoring bitch?” he shouted. “You intruding asshole! Can’t you see she doesn’t want you around here?”
“Oh, yeah?” cried Davenport. “I thought we had an agreement about this!”
“We DO!” shouted Eggleston, pushing Julie aside. “It’s this! Get the fuck off this property! I’ll report you to the cops, you freaking jerk! What’s the matter with you? Go fuck a walrus! Get out!”
Julie retreated a few steps into the kitchen.
Davenport sent a pleading gaze to Julie, who turned away and picked up a butcher knife.
“Jesus,” he said. “Don’t get crazy, here.”
Eggleston turned around and held a hand out to stop Julie’s advance. “I’ll take care of this. Put the knife down.”
“I’ll cut off his…”
“Put it down, Julie. I’ll do this.”
Julie lowered the point of the weapon. Eggleston turned back to Davenport, still standing outside on the stoop. “You may be the Principal at school, but at this house, you’re a stray dog. So get the hell out and stay out, or I’ll beat the shit out of you. Do you get that? Get out!”
Davenport backed up a step. The truth was, physically, he wasn’t a match for Eggleston, and he was fighting a losing cause. Julie didn’t want him. But before he left the steps, he turned back to Eggleston with a growl. “You’re finished, you bastard. You’re fired. Don’t come back to teach tomorrow. You’re done.”
“Bullshit,” spat Eggleston. “BULL—SHIT! Okay?” He slammed the door.
Julie lay the knife on the counter and leaned on the cabinets with one hand. They stood in a daze for a few moments. “Sorry about that,” said Julie, blinking.
“God damn. What a jerk.”
“Fuck a walrus? Now you’ve lost your job.”
“I don’t think so. I haven’t done anything wrong, have I? He has no grounds to fire me.”
“Well, he just said you were fired.”
“Yeah, but he’s fucked up. He can’t fire me for this.” The two stood in the kitchen for a while. Eggleston sighed. “Let’s eat some cake.”
“Yeah,” said Julie. “I think I’ve lost my edge.”
“No,” said Eggleston. “You’ll never lose your edge. But cake seems right, at the moment.”
But Davenport apparently did have the authority to fire Eggleston. When he arrived at school the next morning, his classroom was locked and several students stood around, waiting to enter. “What’s happening?” one of them asked. Eggleston tried his key, but found that it wouldn’t open the lock.
“What the hell?” he muttered, trying again and again.
“Well, that’s the thing,” said a student. “One of the maintenance guys was changing the locks this morning.”
“You’re kidding,” said Eggleston. “Just now?”
“Well, maybe a half hour ago.”
Eggleston laid his books on the floor and turned back down the hallway. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “Don’t go anywhere.”
He stopped in the adjacent classroom, where an English teacher was preparing her desk. “Did you have any trouble with the locks this morning?”
“No,” she said. “But they were working on your door. Did you need a new lock?”
“No, I think Davenport had my locks changed.”
“He fired me last night.”
“What the hey? What for?”
“He thinks I fucked his girlfriend.”
“Whoa! Not good. But how does that get you fired?”
“I don’t think he can do it. I’ll get a lawyer on it.”
“You weren’t doing it in school, were you?”
“Of course not. Do I look like a complete idiot?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. A couple teachers got all revved up in the locker room last year. They both got fired.”
And that was how Mark Eggleston lost his teaching job. His replacement, Bill Carver, a snot-nosed upstart right out of grad school, barely knew the subject and within a few minutes had spawned a rebellion among the students.
Cloudy was the first to blow. “Where’s the scorpions? What did you do to them? It’s my turn to feed them.”
“Yeah,” said one of the others, standing on his knees in his seat. “Where are they?”
“I had to dispose of them,” said Carver. “Mr. Davenport said they were too dangerous.”
“What the hell?” said Cloudy. “Where’s Egghead, anyway?” Everyone stared, shrugging.
Nancy, weirdly proud of what she had apparently catalyzed, squirmed in her seat. “Maybe it’s about him and your mom.”
“My mom?” said Cloudy, recoiling at the thought.
“Well, he’s got a crush on her.”
Cloudy’s face looked like he smelled something bad. “I don’t think so. But anyway, so what? That’s not a crime.”
“They were making out, and then some, in this very lab a couple weeks ago.” Nancy shot him a smug sneer. “I saw them. He had his hands all over her.”
Mr. Carver, tried to intervene. “This isn’t useful, is it? What’s done is done. We need to get on with our lessons.”
“You saw them in here?” Cloudy demanded, ignoring the teacher. “Doing what?”
“Making out. He had her on the table by the scorpions. If I hadn’t come in, he would have… ”
“On the table?”
“Yeah, he was going after her, like, well, they were really getting into it. I walked in on them.”
A ripple of quiet laughter rose across the room.
“Well, that’s embarrassing,” said Cloudy. “But he got fired for that?”
“Maybe,” said Nancy. “You have to admit, it’s pretty careless.” The conversation tapered off.
Class that day was useless. Carver tried hard to communicate some facts about biology, but nothing stuck. The students left, mostly gathering around Cloudy, gossiping and scratching their heads. The conversation swirled around Nancy. She must have told someone. That would explain everything.
That afternoon, around their cars in the parking lot, trouble brewed.
The next morning in class, Cloudy confronted Nancy. “What did you say about Egghead and my mom? Who did you talk to?”
“What?” said Nancy, pretending to be caught off guard.
“You did this, didn’t you? Who did you say about Egghead?”
“Nothing. I didn’t tell anybody.”
“Please! People!” said Carver. “Let it go. Let’s get to work.”
“Yeah,” said Cloudy, still focused on Nancy. “Davenport had to know, or he wouldn’t have fired Egghead.”
“Well, I don’t know. I mean, it was so weird. How could you not talk about something like that?”
“So it got back to Davenport.” Cloudy stared into Nancy’s eyes. “You told him, didn’t you? You ratted them out.”
“Well, it was crazy! I couldn’t just walk away, could I? I mean, it’s not right, it’s like, get a room or something. I mean, they can’t do that in school. That’s nuts!”
“People!” said Carver. “This is ridiculous. We need to focus, here.”
Cloudy sat down. “This sucks. You can’t fire a teacher for making out with someone’s mom. That’s ridiculous. I think we should sit in. We should sit in, over in Davenport’s office, until he hires him back.”
“Sit in?” said Gary Impich, one of the more introverted students. “What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of a sit in? You just go sit somewhere and refuse to move until you get what you want. Let’s do it!”
Mr. Carver threw his head back in disbelief. “Good god,” he said. “This is outrageous. You’re not going to go to the Administration and try to force them to change their mind. We have biology to do over here. Get out your books. This is stupid. Cloudy, come back to earth. Let’s get started.”
Cloudy stood up. “Who’s with me?”
In a clamor of sliding seats and feet, the students all stood up. All but Nancy.
“There is nothing personal about this,” he told Mr. Carver. “It’s just that we had a magnificent teacher and he got fired for nothing, so this isn’t working for us.”
And, with that, the eleven students in Cloudy’s section, all but Nancy, picked up their books, returned them to their lockers, and walked, as an angry contingent, to Davenport’s office. As they left, Carver called down the hallway, “Tell him I had nothing to do with this!” As if he’d protest his own hiring. He went back in to join Nancy.
Cloudy knocked on the Principal’s door. Davenport called, “Who is it?”
“Students!” said Cloudy. “We’re sitting in the hallway until you hire Mr. Eggleston back.”
Davenport shoved a few items around on his desk, muttering dark oaths, then came to the door. “What’s this all about?”
“It’s about Eggleston,” said Cloudy. “We want him back.”
Davenport stood nonplussed, but enraged. “Okay, great,” he said with disgust. He walked next door, to the secretary’s office, and said, “Get all their names and I’ll call their parents. They’re all suspended immediately.”
Gary Impich, the introvert, rose and said, “My dad will literally beat me to death if he hears this. I’m going back to class.”
Davenport pointed at him. “Very wise choice. Anybody else?”
But that was it. The other ten sat in the hall talking quietly while the secretary wrote a list of names that she handed to Davenport. “Ten of them,” she said. “Isn’t that a lot?”
“I can count,” said Davenport. He stalked back into his office and began calling home.
Predictably, a student rebellion didn’t go down well at home. But Davenport didn’t know the half of the problem. As soon as the A-bloc class was ferried home by infuriated parents, some of whom wondered about Davenport more than about their children, the B-bloc class showed up in the hall to support the A-bloc class. They demanded not only that Egghead be returned to his post, but that Cloudy and his class be reinstated as well. “This is an outrage!” cried one of the younger, impassioned students. “A complete outrage!”
Davenport rolled his eyes and began to take names, telling this group that they, too, would be suspended. “You belong in class, not in some two-bit demonstration. Who do you think you are, Martin Luther King?”
“Who do you think you are, Rasputin?” cried the outraged kid.
“Get into my office!” Davenport shouted. Then, to the secretary, “Call his mom first!”
“I thought you were making the calls,” said the secretary, not keen on confrontations with parents.
“Dammit!” said Davenport. “Call that boy’s mom!”
It was a memorable day at Stanton High School. Before the third bloc ended, Davenport closed the school and demanded that all the kids be sent home. He had his secretary announce a meeting with all the affected parents, using the internet to get the word out. “All of them!” he said. “Every kid in AP and Anatomy and Physiology. Everyone in Eggleston’s classes. Apparently they all need to hear about Eggleston’s philandering.”
But before she could gather the class lists, a young, hotshot lawyer, representing Eggleston, appeared on the scene, asking for a meeting with Principal Davenport. If the day wasn’t already swirling down the drain, this flushed it full bore.
“As Mr. Eggleston’s official council,” he began, “I will need a full breakdown of the events leading to his firing, in as much detail as possible. I’ve already spoken at length with both him and Mrs. McCleod, as well as with Nancy Berrien, the student who reported to you about the incident in the biology lab after school. I’m sure we can resolve this out of court. Or not. But if not, there will be a huge lawsuit involved. So, let’s talk.”
Davenport set his jaw. “That man was in violation of school policy. I don’t need to justify my actions to you or anyone else. When people break the rules, they pay the price. That’s the path he chose to walk. He’s a liar and a fool. The school is better off without him. He lies and he cheats and he commits adultery.”
“Well, okay,” said the attorney with a cunning smile. “We’ll see what the court thinks. Be careful of slander, though. This could get a lot worse before it gets better.”
The day dawned in glorious colors, with a little hint of fall in the air. Eggleston unzipped the tent flap and gazed across the lake, sparkling all the way to the vast, green forest beyond. “Wow. What a day.”
Cloudy looked up from the lake shore with a grin. “Ha! Better get out here before the fish stop biting.”
Eggleston craned his head back to see Julie, just rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She smiled and sat up. “I’ll make coffee,” she said. “You two go fish.”
That morning, sitting quietly in the canoe with a stringer of eight beautiful trout, Eggleston stopped paddling for a moment and watched the water slide by the boat. He grinned at Cloudy. “So, you’re giving Stanford an A+, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s first rate. One year down, three to go. I’ve only got four days before I have to be back.”
“Pre-med all the way?”
“Oh, yeah.” Cloudy leaned back and grinned. They drifted a while in silence, watching the clouds begin to form in the morning thermals. “Do you ever miss the classroom?”
Eggleston shrugged. “Not really.”
“What a weird world. I’d never in a million years have thought you’d be my dad.”
“We owe Nancy Berrien one for that. And your crazy sit-in.”
“Yep. And your lawyer.”