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Benefit of the Bargain.

What a strange little episode to arise so perilously close to Christmas. The sense of holiday seemed utterly beyond reach.

A long, high-pitched wail from the rail yards sounded the passage of the Chesapeake and Ohio freight on its way from Louisville to Lexington. It was December 20, the last school day before Christmas. Janet Law (Miss Law to her fifth graders) looked at the old brown school clock that hung over the oval portrait of George Washington and confirmed that it was three o'clock. Her own fifth-grade room in Birmingham had had such a perfectly accurate, consummately nondescript clock, which ceased to run only on the occasion when Franklin Hawley knocked it off the wall with a rubberized hardball. When it was safely placed back upon the wall, and Franklin placed in the principal's office, it resumed its watch upon her young life.

Tapping her red pencil on the edge of her desk, Janet glanced from the clock to the timeless, gray December day outside of her long bank of windows. The playground was empty. If it weren't for the lastminute semester grades and the problem of David Mays, she would be with Susan and Lucy having a glass of wine at the little inn just inside the county line. "Oh, well," Janet thought, brushing her newly cropped brown another day, another dollar."

Janet fully intended to continue grading the spelling test in front of her, but thoughts of childhood, begun by looking at the clock, continued as the colored rings of construction paper, tin-foil stars, and strings of popcorn and berries that adorned the tree reminded her of Christmases past. She was lost in thoughts of another decade when her classroom door was suddenly flung open.

Janet started, knocking her purse from the edge of her desk. She picked up her purse and composed herself while David Mays stood in her doorway ready for punishment. Taller than his ten-year-old peers and only an inch shorter than Janet, more outspoken than even the sixth graders one year older, and black and proud as any student she had ever taught, David had somehow become her special charge.

"Janet--" The principal had stopped her during the lunch break. His voice lowered to a whisper. "David Mays called Miss Christian an old white bitch in the hall this morning."

"Well?" she had answered, knowing full well what was next. She liked Bob Jones as a person but avoided him as a principal.

"Well, I've got a conference with the superintendent this afternoon. And then . . . well," he stammered. "I'm supposed to pick up Betty and the kids and go into Louisville to go shopping right after school. And you've got more control over David than anyone else. Why, for you he would. . . ."

"O.K., Mr. Jones. When, how, and just what am I supposed to do?"

"Well, I've told him to report to you after school. You can . . . well, do something . . . you know . . . do something." He patted her on the shoulder, smiled anemically, and moved quickly on through the corridor. He had known she would stay, even on the last day before vacation.

"Hello, David, she said, regaining her teacher's tone of voice. "Have a seat." He began to sit down. "Up here, by me," she corrected him. "Where I don't have to scream unless I want to." He moved to the seat by the side of her desk.

Janet was not completely prepared for the moment. In fact, she had no details of the offense. And she certainly had no idea of the sentence she was to administer.

"David, let's get to the point," she said. "Mr. Jones says you called Miss Christian an old white bitch." She was careful not to stumble over or slur the phrase "old white bitch." "What do you have to say about that?"

David pursed his lips and looked down at his lap. A moment passed and he looked up.

"Well, David, why?"

"Because she talked bad to me."

"What did she say?" Janet asked, knowing that the confession would not now easily.

"She said I was stealing." Janet guessed that this was not a direct quote.

"Why would she have thought you were stealing?"

"'Cause of the money I took. But I told her I was going to pay it back," he said.

"Who did you take the money from?"

"Brian." Brian was white, ordinarily David's closest friend.

"Was it just Brian whom you took money from?" Janet's mind wandered for a moment to the supposed grammatical offense of ending a sentence with a preposition.

"Well, there was Tom and Craig too. . . . I would have paid them back. I would have paid them all back. I was just borrowing."

"So it was their money?"

"Yes-but I needed it. I need it now. So I took it. But I told them I'd pay them back. They knew."

Janet knew David was loud and boastful; competitive and proud. He was not dishonest.

"What was the money for, David?"

"Things," David answered. His jaws set tightly. Janet knew she would get no further response with a direct question.

The room became silent except for the recurring squeak of David's sneaker on the linoleum floor. The gray overcast outside had begun to deepen as it neared 3:30. A few premature flakes of snow began to settle down ftom the gray, dusting the black limbs of the oak tree outside Janet's window. Crime and punishment were the last topics Janet wanted to pursue.

Even without this last bit of housekeeping involving David Mays, it was not the merriest of Christmases. One year post-divorce, Janet had no one who even vaguely resembled a "most significant other." She was resolved that since Louisville was home now, she should not flee back to Birmingham for Christmas. When all was said and done, wine with Susan and Lucy was more to the order of her emotional tolerance than crime and punishment.

"What are you doing for Christmas, David?" If David didn't want to talk about petty theft, then neither did she, at least for the moment.

"Stayin' with Momma." Janet knew that this meant with his mother and his stepfather.

"Have you trimmed your tree yet?"

"They did." Janet knew that this meant his mother, his stepfather, and their children.

"Didn't you help?" Janet probed.

"I had chores. Jim said I'm getting too old for trimming trees and Santa Claus and all that."

Janet's breath escaped in a short, quiet hiss. At 29 she too sensed the need for trimming trees and Santa Claus. Her parents had asked her to join them and her teenage brother. A gut feeling midway between pride and shame had prompted her to decline this offer. David lacked the good fortune of an offer. Janet collected her thoughts, then herself.

"What about your Daddy's family?" David's natural father had been killed in an industrial accident four years before, Somehow the lawyer Mrs. Mays had retained managed to lose the worker's compensation case, failing to file before the two-year deadline. David's stepfather was a good man, but a hard one.

"They're away."

"Who's away?"

"Aunt Jane's moved to St. Louis. Uncle Fred's family is all busy." David fell silent, resuming his gaze downward at his squeaking sneaker. At last, Janet had a lead and a clue. David had not mentioned his grandmother Mays.

"When is your Grandmother Mays coming to town for Christmas?" David simply shook his head from side to side. "Where does she live, David?"

"Cincinnati."

"Do you really think your stepdad doesn't have the money for her busfare down here?" Janet was guessing.

"Jim says so. He got laid off Friday. Plant's closing till February."

"So you were trying to get the money from Brian, Tom, and Craig so you could pay for a ticket, right?"

David's eyes darted upwards with a look of respect for her intelligence and resentment for her intrusion into his own sadness.

"Yeah," he st"And it would have been O.K. They knew I'd pay 'em back. But they saw Miss Christian and got scared. And then when she stopped us they wouldn't say anything."

The mention of Miss Christian added yet another wrinkle to the problem. Janet was suddenly reminded that Miss Christian had been called ar "old white bitch" and was probably waiting in her own room for an outcome to the incident. Ethel Christian was both strict and kind, toughminded and sensitive, and above all, if Janet was David's mother figure at the school, Ethel Christian was his surrogate grandmother.

Janet looked down at the clutter on her unvarnished desk top. She could use order and a little time to think. She knew that she had neither. Getting up from her desk, Janet walked to the window. What a strange little episode to arise so perilously close to Christmas. It threatened all three of them in common. And if the sense of holiday had seemed merely distant earlier in the day, it now seemed utterly beyond reach.

The money was the least of Janet's problems. Janet Law had little to spare, but certainly enough to pay for a bus ticket from Cincinnati. The question was how to find a solution that constituted punishment rather than reward. She turned and looked at David still seated by her desk. Punishment would get her nowhere. Charity would not get her that far.

"David," she began, thinking as her words were spoken. "Your punishment is that you must bargain with me. Ordinarily you would have the choice not to. But I am the teacher and you are the student and I am taking that choice from you." David began to stiffen. He did not like being told that any of his choices had been eliminated, and even if he did not fully realize what Janet was saying, he understood well enough to feel angry. She understood too and was relieved. Now she could proceed.

"I will now present the terms of our bargain."

"What kind of bargain?" David snapped.

"I will trade you the price of a round-trip bus ticket for your Grandmother Mays for certain . . ." she paused. "Certain work."

"What kind of work?" he asked.

"You tell me what you'll be willing to do and I'll tell you whether I'll accept. But it must also involve Miss Christian."

David's chin receded and his back assumed a more normal slope.

"I'll apologize," David stated, his mouth dry and his palms sweaty.

"That's to be expected, David. That's only common decency."

He paused, confused. "I'll mean it," he said quietly.

"That's a beginning," Janet said with a slight smile. "And what else will you do?"

David looked down and away. "I'll be good."

"Now you're back to square one. You are 'good,' David. That's not the issue." She knew that when David looked down and away his mind was not on his words.

"You must offer me something that I will accept and that I believe you'll come through on." Janet bit her lip as she repeated her sentence and its closing preposition. She brushed intruding thoughts of grammar aside. David looked up and squarely into her eyes.

"What can I do?" he asked.

"You can stop pouting and start thinking. How about working for the ticket?"

"Nobody will hire me. I'm too young. I'd work. I tried already."

He glanced outside at the dense gray cloud cover. "I'd shovel snow, but I don't have no shovel."

"I don't have any shovel," Janet corrected him. She caught herself in the pedant's bind and quickly added, "I accept your offer. It's a deal." (Susan and Lucy were on their second glass of wine.)

"What? But--"

"I know, David. No shovel. I'll worry about the details later; just come with me." And she rose from her chair, took David by the hand, and quickly marched down the length of the second-floor corridor, their footfalls echoing against the 12-foot ceilings and beige walls. They reached their destination at the end of the hall and waited for a moment in silence.

Miss Christian sat waiting at her desk, gazing out the window, her hands folded over her gloves, her purse ready for departure. Janet knocked at the door.

"Excuse me, Miss Christian. David Mays and I would like to see you for a moment. David has something he would like to say to you." She stepped into the room, dropped David's hand from hers, and took one step back to the door. Miss Christian looked intently into David's eyes. Janet diverted her own gaze to the brown clock on Miss Christian's wall and achingly watched the sweep hand make its way from one to almost seven before she dared look back at the two actors in front of her. Ethel's own eyes reflected the hurt suffered earlier in the day, and the muscles of her jaw seemed to be holding back anger or tears or both.

Six years in the school system had gradually taught Janet the folklore that surrounded Ethel Christian. She had cast her first vote in a national election for Franklin Roosevelt the year after she began teaching. Nearly 30 years later she voted for John Kennedy at the 1960 convention and openly cried and closed her classroom the day Norman Williams came running in with the news that the President was dead. She voted for Carter in 1976 and more secretly in 1980, only after still more secretly voting for another Kennedy in the Democratic primary.

No matter the secrecy; it was a small-town school, and the small town had pegged her as a liberal. Ethel Christian had remained in her classroom at Northside Elementary when it integrated in 1958, lived through phone calls in the night, and survived cries of "nigger lover" when she had shielded a first-grade student from rotten eggs. She was also getting old, and words like "old white bitch" cut easily through the stern facade she had cultivated over a 50-year tenure. She would retire in June at age 72.

David's head raised up straight. His large deep-brown eyes never blinked.

"Miss Christian, I'm sorry. I'm awfully sorry. I said something that wasn't me. I like you. My family likes you. But you remind me of my grandma. And she wasn't coming this Christmas. And I was trying to get money to pay her way. And I was mad. Brian and Tom and Craig knew. But they was scared. And you were the only one stopping me." He stopped for breath, his words rushing closer together. "I'll shovel your walk when the snow comes. This winter and every winter. Not just 'cause Miss Janet will pay me . . ." he paused, unsure whether the bargain was private or not. "But 'cause I want to. You've done good by me and my family and they all know it and you don't have nobody and I don't . . ." David was crying. Ethel Christian stepped forward, holding her own breath, a dam of tears about to break. She put her arms around David's shoulders and he wrapped his gangling arms about her torso.

They stood in the silence shared only with Janet and the bare, gray country play yard outside. Then Janet felt a tear form and the need to leave the scene without breaking it. She slipped back, then out the door, catching, then preserving for a later day, the brief glance of gratitude and peace in Miss Christian's eye.

Janet walked the hallway alone this time, quickly took her one crisp $20 bill from her wallet, placed it in an envelope, and rapidly scribbled on the outside: "David Mays. For services performed and to be rendered."

She returned to Miss Christian's room in the growing darkness. Their embrace broken, teacher and student stood side by side, David's right arm about her broad back, hers propped lightly on his shoulders, staring out the window at two squirrels running up and down the limbs that crisscrossed and rubbed against the windows of the school.

"I need to get going," Janet noted quietly. They turned around. Miss Christian came to her and David followed.

"Thank you, Janet. You have been a capable mediator in our little dispute." Even while Ethel Christian verbally resumed the persona of Teacher that she had chiseled upon herself for 50 years, the gentle squeeze Janet felt against her hand related much Please have a very merry Christmas. And do have a good visit with your family. They must love you very much."

Janet started, then smiled politely. Poor Ethel Christian. Perhaps she was slipping. Janet had mentioned over lunch just the other day that she would not be staying with her parents over Christmas.

"And David," Janet said, "here's the benefit of our bargain. It looks as though we have all been well-served." David hugged her, harder, tighter, as he would have hugged his mother. He looked up and said nothing.

A sudden change of expression flashed over David's face. Janet read his thoughts.

"The shovel." Janet said, "I almost forgot. Miss Christian, David needs a shovel. Do you have one he can borrow?"

"Of course."

"Good. You two work out the rental," she said jok"Now I've got to run."

Janet thrust her arm into the strap of her purse and briefcase and left the room behind her for the holidays.

The rush of cold air first took her breath away and then invigorated her as Janet crossed the gravel parking lot and fumbled with the stiff door lock of her Chevette. The car turned over on the fourth try, and Janet sat shivering while she waited for the heater to kick on. As she loosened the brake, the car sputtered slowly forward, and she eased past the school just as David Mays emerged from the front door. Slipping into second gear, she honked the horn in a moment of good-bye and celebration. Past the county library and Murphy's Furniture store on her right, past the WinnDixie and Rexall drugstore on her left, Janet was warm, in fifth gear, and going 50 when she left the city limits headed for Louisville.

Two hundred yards ahead, Susan's and Lucy's cars stood out clearly in the parking lot of the Old Stone Inn. Janet slowed to third gear and put on her right signal light. For a moment she contemplated the method by which she would share her afternoon with Susan and Lucy, then realized she simply couldn't. It was too fragile out of context, and when they left the last sip of wine in their glasses and returned to Louisville for an evening with family or friends, Janet would leave for her apartment and the breakfast dishes.

It was probably the dirty dishes that decided the issue. Janet shifted back into fourth gear and turned at the next ramp onto the expressway. Turning on the radio, Janet adjusted her seat slightly backward for a longer trip. Without even thinking twice about stopping for clothes (her mother, like her, was a perfect four) Janet wound around the city on the Watterson Expressway and then turned south for Birmingham. They rolled by like depot stops on an oldfashioned train route: Elizabethtown, Cave City, Bowling Green, Franklin, Nashville, and on south.

She got off the expressway at the Murfreesboro "midway" point and was halfway through a Wendy's single with cheese when a discordant thought made her sit upright.

It came to her that all the way down 1-65 and halfway through dinner, she had been wondering whether David would learn and profit from his experience; she had reviewed the afternoon's events and wondered whether his grandmother would come, whether he would keep his contract, and whether he would ultimately profit from her solution.

Then Janet remembered that Ethel Christian had wished her a good visit with her family. Had Miss Christian really forgotten, or did she know more than Janet the full consideration Janet had received from her contract with David?

The rain outside was turning to sleet, and Janet rebuttoned her coat and took the remainder of her coffee with her, eager to move on toward Birmingham. She wondered then and she would wonder again when Ethel Christian retired and David Mays moved on to middle school at the year's end-whether, after all, she had received the greatest benefit of the bargain struck that lonely after noon.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Toner, Gerald R.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1988
Words:3386
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