To Rank The Effort Above The Prize May Be Called Love (aka You Don’t Always Get Brownie Points For Trying)

My mother used to always warn me about people and their gossip. Before she died I’d get so tired of her telling me not to trust people, waning from one story to the next on friends and family that committed horrible atrocities for the sake of their self interest. Worn and bent over a rocking chair, four red checkered playing cards in her hand as we played Casino. Those are my fondest memories of her, before she died. A time when she spilt her wisdom over diamond nines and clubbed jacks. Always hiding an ace around her bed gown for an extra point I never counted.

“They’re animals,” She would say. “Will eat you alive if you give let them. Before we had to fight for food, now we fight for work. They used to kill you with their hands, now they do it with words. Nothing but хуйло́.”

Something about Casino brought out the worst and best of her. I think the game reminded her of earlier times, and she talked so freely and removed from now that she wouldn’t mention my gambling or weed addictions. I made 18 points last hand, she was one spade short of 21. A long sigh leaked from her lips as her wrinkled hands took up the table to shuffle.

“But we have to love them anyway, I guess.” Words I nodded and said goodnight to, not knowing they were her last.

But they remained with me, and I thought of them constantly whenever work became something more than a job. In 2016 I was caught between the animals and a hard place thanks to the dangerous and heartless parfait of teachers in a charter school.

It was called The Faculties Wall. Nobody knew when or how it started, but it was maintained for years as a well kept secret and dishonored tradition. Located in the staff restroom of the fourth floor, securely tucked away from student eyes, hidden behind a loose and shoddy ceramic wall tile in the third stall. Fifth tile up from the toilet handle, perpendicular to the coat hanger of the stall- here you would find a list of names, impressively almost alphabetized,  of teachers and what others thought of them in an old wooden plank. Written in a thin black marker, kept scouts honor on the ceiling tile, with a precise and poignant naming convention. A name, an underline, and a series of adjectives would follow. A simple but effective way to wound somebody, to see the dark thoughts of the mob make a grocery list of all your faults.

“What’s it say for Karen?” I asked.

“Snob. Princess. Stank.” Matthew replied.

“Well it isn’t wrong, I guess.”

“Somebody needs to give that stick up her ass a little twist.” He said. “Then take it out. Then put it back in again. Then take it out. Then put-”

“Yours is probably pretty harmless,” I interrupted, because otherwise the loop would be endless. “Since everyone thinks you’re some prince.”

“I did get one Perv. A few Asshole’s. Two or three somethings about being cocky.”

“I’m so happy for you,” I replied dryly.

“Know what would make me happy? Putting it in Karen’s cooterrrrrrrrrrrr”

“You’re aware shes pregnant.”

“And are you aware that can’t happen twice at the same time.”

The Faculties Wall- an outlet for the adults to finally act as cruel as school children, anonymously and as deprived as chat rooms. But worse, somehow. Internet bullying can all seem the same. They’re just digitized letters. But a hand written Douchebag has something terribly intimate about it. The slant of the d, dashing of the i. it makes it much more personal than some 13 year old having a field day in the YouTube comments.

“You still haven’t checked yours huh?”

“I’m not interested.”

“Good for you man. Way to take the high road so the rest of us dont have to. Now I can keep using this as an excuse to just insult you. Like I personally would never have called you frumpy.”

“Shouldn’t you be working on whatever that is?” I asked, waving generally at the copier.

“Fucking finals week is killing me,” He said, reaching in his pocket for a portabalized bottle of aspirin. He popped one with a swig of mineral water, and added, “But not as much as Karen’s-….”

I didn’t care what anyone thought about me. I was more curious of what they thought of each other. Karen wasn’t all bad behind her resting bitch face. Her husband was this stubby and horrible looking Irish kid, so I knew she wasn’t as superficial as everyone thought. Matthews women mania was a well guarded secret. To everyone else he was just the funny man, and I knew all about his 4 episodes of depression and mild pill addiction. Jessie was the last of four, only one to go to college, the prodigal child. Wanting to make her family proud but side-lining her desires to go back to school and be a social worker.

I liked to know these things as a sort of social empathy.  Like how watching someone yawn almost makes you want to do it as well. The Faculties Wall was a passive interest, like boxing, or passing car accidents on the highway. But I couldn’t bare to look myself. To put on the gloves I knew full well that I wouldn’t be able resist and take whatever I saw scribbled too personally. And not knowing where it was from, I’d place a wall to my back and turn everyone into an enemy.

“And hey man, I know I usually joke about this stuff but this time its serious with the Tee Eff Dubbs.”

“I don’t care if my shirt is wrinkled.”

“It totally is, but this is not about that. Somebody signed their name on the The Faculties Wall. A major no no.”

“So?”

“It’s got us Tee Eff Dubbers talking. That’s some bold shit to do man.”

“Basically saying they don’t care who knows they feel that way. I get it.”

“Might bring us some heat. I can’t believe Jessie would do that.”

“…to who?” I asked, already knowing.

Matthew placed a cold hand on my shoulder.

“It is so much more worse than frumpy.”

——————————————————————————————————————-

The mind is a terrible muscle. Unreliable, prone to forget or exaggeration. It plays tricks and can’t be trusted to even decide if a dress is blue or not. For the weeks that followed, mine played a terrible game against itself. A Daredevil sort of hyper-awareness overcame my senses with every interaction I had with Jessie. I felt lingering eyes sometimes where there were none, as if other staff members were waiting for some eruption or subtle gesture. Some tell to discover the way Jessie truly felt about me under the nuance of office politeness.

That moment never came, I don’t think, but I began to treat Jessie the way the instinct of the healthy treat the sick – kindly, but over-protectively and from a distance. I went so far as to change our bi-weekly meeting to only once, and if possible, I would have had that interaction over dixie cups or a recording device. Before then, I had little to think or say about her. She was not outstanding or a terribly awful receptionist. She was just all right, bland in all the right places that make for terrible conversation and an excellent first line for the waves and waves of parents that came in on a daily.

Three weeks had past since Matthew shared the news, and I was on the verge of forgetting it altogether.

“I don’t know how you play nice with someone like that,” Shi said. Shilynn was a parent, my confidant and one of the few people who I sincerely enjoyed. Five minutes with Shi and you would learn her nickname is an antonym, as she was anything but. Loud, honest, playful and forward. Gorgeously stacked six feet high with hoop earrings and a smile that almost made me as manic as Matthew.

“Don’t tell me you know about the wall too,” I asked. And Shi only made a face with a sardonic and closed lip Mmm-Hmph.

“I haven’t seen it yet. But I’ve heard.” Shi shot me a quizzed look, shaking her head with that brilliant and toothy smile.

“That’s what I love about you Noel. Don’t give a shit about what other people have to say, all about your business. Keep that focus on Finals Week baby.”

The copy machine roared softly in the background, and from the distance I could see two teachers talking laxly in loud whispers. Was it about me? I couldn’t tell. They never looked my way but gave shamed nods and gestures that made me think it was. The way you close your eyes on a train and can swear someone is looking at you, but when you open them, there’s nobody there.

“But you need to check that girl. And don’t even stress,” She clicked, placing a warm hand against my cheek. “I think you look cute frumpy.”
————————————–
The mind is a terrible machine. Always functioning, always turning, even in sleep. I started to have awful dreams. An auditorium full of people I didn’t recognize. Their faces blurred by the spotlight as I stood by the curtain, watching their shapes shift and jiggle in Ooh’s and Aah’s as Jessie stood speaking angrily into the microphone on the stage. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I knew it was about me. Or did I merely think it? Dreams are funny that way. Even what you’re not sure of tends to be the gist of it. It’s all your imagination – there is no stage, no crowd, no curtain, no Jessie. It was only my own subconscious rebelling against my self esteem.

At one point, Jessie pointed, and a hundred dark shapes jerked to look at me. A sea of black silhouettes staring mercilessly without eyes. And when I thought to run or stand out for myself – the alarm clock jerked me to my bedroom. No stage, no crowd, no curtain or Jessie. Just a mattress and a cat whining for his feed.

That morning I moved purposefully straight to the fourth floor staff bathroom. Something in my expression must have gave me away, because passing Matthew up the staircase he only winced and muttered some nonsense along the lines of I-Knew-You’d-Break. I hung my satchel in the door, third stall. Stood on the slippery sheen of the porcelain toilet, nearly breaking my neck for the pen faithfully kept in the ceiling. I remember the way it felt so different from the others I’ve held. A bit old and watery from years of wear, but powerful. How many hands had gripped this instrument only to gripe their grievances onto a wooden board. How much history of hate was confined into a sharpie, made boringly in some factory by some machine and people with their own sighs and Faculties Wall.

I stared into the ceramic tile, fifth up from the toilet handle, perpendicular to the stall coat rack. I felt an odd touch of destiny that moment, as if I was taking my life and name back from the phantoms behind the wall. But there was a hesitance. I was afraid, I think, or maybe something more. Anger was what anchored me that entire car ride. It was all I could think about past every exit, speeding towards reaching this place I knew, deep down, I never wanted to be a part of. There was a sweat in my palm as I gripped the marker, and I consciously felt myself at a crossroad. Behind the tile, the curtain, was Matthew and Jessie, and even Shi. Two thoughtless movements and I’d be plunged behind the ugly truth behind How-Was-Your-Weekend, weak weather whatever’s and a void of restraint the social contract binds us to.

I took a deep breath.
——————————————————————–

They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, but I don’t think they’ve ever heard of abandonment.  Jessie was drowning, as far as I could tell because Finals Week is a killer. My third year of it caused some pre-planning I neglected to include her with. There aren’t enough hours in the day, so the trick is to come in an hour earlier when nobody is here and focus on those intricate but easy pieces that need to be done. Bubbling spreadsheets, preparing envelopes. Easy stuff that gets difficult once the rush of parents hits you.

“Goodnight Jessie,” I said on my way out. “Don’t let the rain catch you.”

“Thanks,” Jessie groaned behind a stack of paperwork. Hunched, tired eyes resisting the allure of her cell phone vibrating wildly on the counter.

I stood at the door for a second and thunder cracked. A storm was brewing outside, and a really brilliant one. I’ve always loved rainy and cloudy days. The sun bothers me being so obnoxious and glaring. Staring, demanding to be observed or enjoyed in some lackluster restaurant with outside awnings. Gloomy days fits everyone else in my default mood, and it added to the haggrid state I saw Jessie in. Defenseless, piled behind a desk job not feeding her interest. Welded to the sun without an ounce of strength to call and register for classes next semester.  Doomed to the high life of 9 to 5, no recourse except a wooden board on the third floor of the building.

“Do you want help?” I asked, flatly. Her tired eyes contorted to an emotion I couldn’t place, but she didn’t respond.

I placed my satchel on an empty chair and took a stack of papers. Made some joke about how this work was even bigger than Karen’s belly. Jessie laughed, or at least pretended to, and we twiddled through hours of end-of-day deliverables with nothing but placid politeness. The only highlight was a picture of her mom, decked glamorously in a bathrobe throwing a piece sign in a rocking chair. Cigarette pack on her bedside and a deck of cards half opened. A sweet looking old thing ancient as the highways and just as racist.

“She’s cute,” I said, politely. “You have her eyes.”

“She wants me to go back to school, but right now I just can’t because-” Jessie stopped, some subconscious halt to whatever was about spill a terrible honesty.

“You should go back to school,” I said. “Or you should stay here and work. You’re good at either, but nobody wants to be a receptionist forever. Eventually you’ll get tired of this place, because you’ll ask What-If? And that kind of hate festers. It turns you to an animal, and angry, and just…I don’t know. It’s terrible. You start to look at everything around you as a sort of resentment. Like it’s their fault you aren’t where you want to be. Matthew didn’t plan to be a music teacher, he wanted to be a rock star. He tried for years, and he landed here. Which is great, I guess, and is he happy? I think so. Maybe. But more than anything I think he tried his best, and even if this isn’t what he wanted, he’s okay with it, because he pursued his dream.”

Jessie stared into her phone screen, nodding absently. She rolled up her sleeveless blouse, taking the rest of my Finals Week stack into her own.

“Thanks, I’ll take care of the rest,” She said. The drip of rain was deafening outside. A long and soaking bus ride my reward.

I gathered my things and said goodnight, paused at the double doors, wanting and wishing to say more, but unable to make available what words to say.

“By the way,” Jessie chimed. “You shouldn’t wear blue, it makes you look frumpy.”

I nodded and laughed, a little too honestly, and walked wrinkled into the rain.

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