Duty: A Short Story by Sam Leuenberger

By Sam Leuenberger

There is a teacher Mollie has in school who will not defend her when she is being teased. He hears everything—the insults, curses, threats, and what does he do? Nothing. Just sits there. Lifts his thermos to his lips.

Now a lot of the kids in this class come from unsatisfactory homes. They are the kind of kids who were still completely nonverbal and wearing diapers at the age of four. But Mollie was read to at night and fed vegetables. She was born plump and knows for a fact that she has asthma and gets easily overheated. She is offended by her teacher’s passivity. “He doesn’t care,” Mollie has told her mother. “He doesn’t know what to do. So he just lets it all happen.”

It wasn’t long before a cruel, witless boy in Mollie’s class, LaMont, targeted Mollie. While the teacher was teaching, he slathered the back of her neck with a fragrant strawberry-scented lotion. Mollie shrieked and jumped out of her seat and danced in place, as if an ice cube had been put down the back of her shirt. The teacher glared. LaMont and his ilk laughed derisively. Near the end of the period, a messenger-boy wearing a glow-in-the-dark slicker delivered a note to the teacher and Mollie swore she heard him say her name. She went up to the teacher’s desk. “Hey,” Mollie said to him. After a moment, he looked up at her and mumbled something she could not understand. He crumpled the note up in his fist. He resumed typing on his computer. “Wait,” Mollie said. “Was that for me?”

The teacher explained that the note was not for her, that it was for a student who was absent. Mollie said she did not believe him and demanded to see the note. The boy, LaMont, was watching amusedly. The teacher poised his fingers on the keyboard of his laptop computer and exhaled. “Please,” Mollie said desperately, “let me see.” Her teacher shifted and then lifted his leg as if he was going to pass gas then picked out a tiny, transparent sesame seed. He pinched the seed with his finger and thumb, squinting at it. It had come from a bagel. “It is of no consequence to you,” he said, and flicked the seed.

The bell rang and Mollie remained at his desk. “I’m not leaving,” she said, “until you give me my note.” The teacher got up suddenly and flexed his empty hands as if he were a magician. “I don’t have it,” he said. “See.” It was as if the note had vanished. “It’s in your pocket!” Mollie declared. “Do you think I’m a moron?” Her teacher smirked. When he smirks Mollie thinks he looks like a pirate. It isn’t just his facial hair, or the beard. It’s related to the indelible shadows he’s got under his eyes. Mollie and her friends discuss this teacher, sometimes at length, during their lunch period. Although the color of his skin under the eyes is natural and not cosmetically enhanced, it is indisputably extra-shadowy and plum-colored. He’s a poor dresser also. Often he wears khaki dress pants and an undershirt with an argyle sweater vest over top of it. He owns three varieties of argyle sweater-vest. His hair is silver and needs to be trimmed. It’s tailing off in the back, like the fanny of a duck. It’s as if he is trying to look disheveled, Mollie thinks, or he is trying to prove that he is not being paid an adequate salary.

He owns rodents. He told the class this on the first day of school, back when he still spoke to them directly about his personal life. His gerbils domicile in a little polis of enclosures on the basement floor of his bunker-like home. The gerbils are swift, impulsive and industrious creatures with stiff tails. Although he cleans their bedding weekly, his home smells putrid, particularly during the winter months when he cannot afford to have the windows open. During cleaning, he transfers the gerbils from their enclosures into a shoebox. He dumps the dirty bedding out on a spread of newspaper. He uses warm water and dish soap to scrub urine and shit stains from the crevices and walls of the enclosure as well as its network of tubes and hideaways. After the enclosure is clean, he transfers the gerbils back into it. He wears yellow rubber gloves while handling them because on occasion the gerbils bite. The teacher believes their bites occur almost exclusively after he has just finished handling food. The teacher feeds the gerbils better than necessary: chicken nugget, apple, celery, raisins, sunflower seeds, scrambled egg. He eats with them, at the same time.

Although the teacher is not married, it is said that he went on a series of dates last fall with a woman civics teacher from another school. Things ended abruptly, Mollie heard, because the teacher had a dream one night in which it was revealed to him that the woman civics teacher had a penis. Although he knew this was almost certainly not the case, he was not able to eradicate the image from his brain, so he ended it.

He is often having dreams like that, the teacher. Malignant dreams whose logic is so pervasive it subsumes reality. He has dreamt about the girl, also. Mollie.

When he awoke, he was horrified. He hardly even knows this girl. It’s still so early in the school year. In the dream, he has the powers of a sorcerer. He has the powers to inspire physical events with words from his mouth. For this reason, he cannot speak or read out loud, at least not with impunity, lest he should say something that disfigures or harms a student. He could lose his job! He is communicating with the students almost entirely via slideshow. He is displaying one slide after another with the tap of an arrow key. In the dream, the students are lewd and inattentive, sitting inappropriately in their chairs, straddling them backwards or slouched down like their spines have been removed. The girls in the front row keep interrupting the teacher to tell him that they are wearing shirts that show their belly buttons, a violation of the dress code. Soon, the students start insulting the content of the slide show and the teacher begins to click through it faster. They are insulting also his inability to supplement the images and text on screen with words from his own mouth. The students complain that they are not impressed by the teacher’s mouth, particularly his lips, which are chapped and sugary looking. One of them compares the lips to that candy, peach-rings. “Yo, peachring!” one of them says to him, just shouts it. The teacher smiles blandly. Then suddenly a messenger-boy walks into the room wearing a glow-in-the-dark slicker, couriering a note. He is a deliberate boy with a gaunt, Middle-Eastern face. There are no such boys in this school, the teacher is thinking, as he receives the note. He thanks the messenger-boy wordlessly, checking the clock, realizing that only ten minutes have elapsed in what will be a fifty minute period. He sees the messenger close the door and feels an impulse to run after him and beg him to stay; he even considers bribing the boy with bills from his wallet. But now one of the boys that’s in the class—this one’s the alpha, the ring-leader—is standing up and pretending to urinate on the back of the neck of a chubby white girl who’s sitting in the second to last row. What’s her name? Most of the time she just sits there and doesn’t even move, as if this makes her invisible.

The boy doing the urinating is making a pee-sound with his tongue and teeth and the other students are laughing raucously. All that is, except for the chubby white girl, who is red-faced and on the verge of sobbing. The teacher looks at the message he has just received and, without thinking, reads it out loud. The chubby white girl whose name he cannot remember is immediately affected. The girl squeals painfully. The class is silent. She is gaining weight rapidly in her legs, waist, chest, and arms. She is filling up. The zipper of her jeans is unzippering and the straps of her sandals have snapped like rubber bands. She shrieks and tries to get up but her legs get stuck under her desk and when she moves she is cowed by it and the desk topples over. The students are up out of their seats, cawing, totally amazed. Hippa, they’re calling her. Short for hippopotamus. Hey, Hippa! they hoot. They’re going to call this name out to her in the hallways. She will answer to it, like a pet. As the dream goes on, the teacher is holding on to the classroom phone. He has just dialed Security. Or the Office. He doesn’t know.

The phone is ringing and ringing. His heart is thumping in his chest making a dull echoy drum sound. He hears the voice of the woman at the Security desk. “What’s your emergency?” she says to him. He realizes he has made a mistake. The girl on the floor is spreading out. The boys announce that the floor is cracking. “Help!” the girl screams. “Help me!” She doesn’t even sound human. She sounds strangled and miniature. The teacher crumples the note up in his hand and hides it in his pocket. He is going to have to get rid of it. Burn it. Then what? “Hello?” says the woman on the other end. “Hello? Hello?”

In front of his desk, the girl, Mollie, announced that she was going to look through the trashcan for the note. “Have at it,” the teacher thought. He pocketed his hands. She dumped the trash out on the floor, shaking it. The phone on the wall was ringing. Students from his next class were already filtering in. The girl was sorting through the trash with her foot. She kicked the trash bin. “Tell me!” she said. There was a crowd at the door and no one had taken their seats. They were asking, Is he going to answer the phone?

The teacher had forgotten to take attendance. He was sitting at his desk chair now; he was clicking the icons on screen which displayed the faces of the children who had just left his classroom. The images in the database were taken a few years ago, back before some of the children had hair on their private parts.

It was then that he decided it. When the phone quit ringing, in about twenty seconds, he would say to the girl at his desk: Mollie. Goodbye. He would walk out of the emergency exit door. He would not wave goodbye to them. He would not give them the finger. They would crowd the windows and look out at him as he got into his car. Mollie would be furious. She would scream out at him that he still owed her a note with her name on it. She would command him to return to his post. His pets would not be waiting for him. They would neither celebrate nor mourn. They would not have an opinion about his choice. They would expect to be fed and to be cleaned. He can do this for them, he thinks, for they are friends of the highest order.

Sam Leuenberger lives in Grove City, Pennsylvania where he is currently a substitute teacher. He also mows lawns and runs a weedwhacker for Thompson Lawn Care.

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