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A knife to the heart.

ROUGH DRAFT PAGES and the sparse contents of my brownbag lunch clutter the tabletop. Here is my twenty-eight minute respite in an otherwise chaotic day--door shut, my resource room brood shushed from the nest. A sentence or two, that's all I want. A paragraph if I'm living right, and what I desire isn't output but absorption into another world. But this afternoon finds me distracted, my attention drawn to an empty chair at the next table. It's the chair's thoughtless angle--not totally pushed under the table, not quite in the aisle, its seat facing me--that I find so vexing. It was how Bobby so often sat in that very spot, slouching, bleary-eyed, his lips never far from a wispy smile.

I was the final teacher to sign his dropout papers three-quarters of the way through his senior year. By that time his exit was a foregone conclusion, the official signing just a formality after months of chronic truancy, run-ins with the powers that be and plummeting grades. Behind us were two-and-a-half years of haggling and joking, compromises and little victories and larger defeats. What else could I do but say goodbye and good luck and offer a handshake? "Thanks," he'd said and rolled up the paper. The next day, I opened his folder of waiting tests. I hesitated over the trashcan, letting the thick pile weigh in my palms. There was a government exam on Constitutional amendments, an English essay on Beowulf, math assignments, and home economics crossword puzzles. The trashcan trembled beneath their dropped weight.

Teachers love tests. They are our weapons and rewards, our simultaneous carrot and stick. They serve as testimonies that we have led our flocks from point A to a more enlightened B, and they are the proof that our labors haven't been in vain. The black-and-white exactness of the correct answer allows us to assign tangible scores to the gray realm of comprehension. With red-pen slashes, we cleave between the knowing and the clueless, between success and failure. I imagine how many times Bobby was stranded on the wrong side of that divide, and when I consider who he was and where he came from, I wonder if it wasn't so much a case of him giving the wrong answers as us failing to ask the right questions.

I study his old chair and, for a moment, I see myself by his side once again, explaining, encouraging, reasoning. How many ropes did I throw him, and to his credit, how often did he--to one degree or another--latch on? But as his troubles grew, so did the distance between us--looking back, I wonder which of us gave up first. The bell rings and as I gather my papers. A few students file in. A burly teen in an oversized Eagles coat claims Bobby's seat, puts his head down on the desktop, and mumbles a request to just let him sleep for the period.

A friend covers the last ten minutes of the day's final period, and out the door I go, released into a brisk November afternoon. Tan leaves swirl on the netless tennis courts, and I steer my car through a crowded, still lot that will soon rumble to life. I'm on my way to see Bobby, a visit that will serve as both a reunion and a goodbye. Twenty-two years in the business, and of course I've been to my share of viewings--suicides and car crashes, the ones whose bodies had revolted one cell at a time--but Bobby is my first murder, a single stab wound to the heart.

I park across the street from the funeral home. Above the rooftops loom the riversides sleek cooling towers, and they shroud this blue-collar town in artificial clouds. A sheltered walkway runs beside the funeral home, and here, the smokers gather, not just the four or five I'm accustomed to seeing outside theaters and restaurants, but dozens. I cross the street, shivering in the grit-speckled wind. Closer now, I recognize a few faces from Bobby's old crew. They acknowledge me sadly, coolly, with nods and dazed gestures, and whatever misgivings I had about coming dwindle. True, I've come to pay my respects to one young man, but without a word I can also testify to these red-eyed faces that the institution I represent cares, that they--the troubled ones not cut out for the accolades bestowed upon scholars and athletes--still matter.

The lobby lights, though dim, cause a moment of squinting adjustment eased by the bridge of burnt tobacco, less fresh but still potent, a scent underpinned here and there by the faint, oily stink of kerosene. There are few ties, fewer suits, and most of Bobby's friends shuffle about in sagging jeans and bulky sweatshirts. The ones wearing oversized T-shirts sporting Bobby's smiling picture shiver with each opening of the door. No discernable voice rises above the lobby's tide of tears and whispered condolences.

The line of mourners extends from the viewing parlor into the lobby, and I take my place behind a young woman carrying an infant. The child wears a knit hat, and the puffy tassels dangling from his earflaps sway each time he coughs. The procession inches forward. It's dimmer still in the viewing parlor, where I stand in a center aisle between rows of folding-chairs. And here is my generation, the seated neighbors and relatives and, thank goodness, a few teachers. I pause at the easel supporting a corkboard full of pictures and study Bobby in his other lives, as a toddler beside a lopsided snowman, in an elementary school portrait with its late-eighties spacegrid background that makes him look like a character out of a videogame. How cute he was.

The child in front of me keeps coughing, a hacking so insistent I must fight the parental urge to pat his back and whisper assurance. Up front, groups gather and pause, a huddling that blocks my view of the casket. I gaze down at my feet, then up at the snot-nosed child who considers me over his mother's shoulder. The line stops again. Where to look? My eyes settle on the woman in the folding chair directly in front of me and on the shoulder of her down coat with its crisscross mends of duct tape.

"The rich are different than you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald said, and if one accepts Fitzgerald's assertion, then take that magnitude of difference, increase it cruelly and exponentially, and then perhaps we'd have a better understanding of the poor. Here I am, a schoolteacher in a single-income family, by no means wealthy, yet I'm a stranger in this world and it's not just a matter of my bank account or the tax shelter and municipal fund statements that arrive at my door every three months. There is a visible weariness to the poor, the threadbare elbows of their shirts, their oil-stained work boots. They have been bowed by hard luck, by the impossible math of making nonexistent ends meet, by the thankless choices they make each week between paying the electric bill, buying medicine, or repairing the sputtering cars that limp them back and forth to work. They are a community bonded by a shared suffering the rest of us ignore or don't see, unified by the rides and hand-medowns they share, by the babysitting they provide for each other on a moment's notice.

The grieving knot in front of me pulls away, the coughing child jostled off on his mother's hip, and for the first time I'm allowed an unobstructed reunion with my old student. Flowers and hand-written notes line the opened casket. How small he looks, childlike in his favorite basketball jersey and Carolina-blue cap. An oversized button is pinned to his jersey, the same picture I glimpsed on the corkboard of Bobby flashing a peace sign, a smoldering, brown blunt pressed to his lips. Here's where the demarcations of SAT scores and income and the high school cliques of jocks and gangsters crumble; here's where all the forces that separate us fade because, in this hush, we are ultimately united, equal in the realm of death. And in the end perhaps all that really matters are the questions we've asked, the ropes we've tossed and those we've grasped.

My fingers rest against the wood coffin. I bid Bobby thanks and goodbye, and am only able to draw a proper breath once I've stepped outside into the biting, smoke-flavored afternoon.

Curtis Smith's stories and essays have appeared in over forty literary journals and anthologies. He is the author of two collections of short-short stories and a novel. His next story collection, The Species Crown will be published by Press 53 this spring.
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Title Annotation:First Person
Author:Smith, Curtis
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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