This story is by Michael G. Cashman and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
CPT Gerald W. Fox (Ret.) had a prognostic feeling when thinking about his job. Daily, while sipping coffee with closed eyes, Fox listened to his colleague’s metronomic addiction get the better of him. Fox could see the rest of his days playing out in a loop for as long as the school wanted him or until he read the letter stuffed into his mailbox that morning.
When the Sisters of Perpetual Suffering opened their school in 1964, everything was green. The hallways, offices, and bathrooms were verdant in hue; his classroom coated in what students referred to as “booger green.” Fifty years later, everything was still green. Measured in sips of coffee, it was in these rooms that Fox’s life passed him by.
Neil Hoey taught foreign languages across the hall from him; Fox taught English. Fox could time his mentor’s need for nicotine to the minute. Once his works were ready, Neil would rap on his neighbor’s door followed by a mumbled, “Fuck this place.” While looking for his lighter Neil would alligator-wrestle his coat for control of its sleeves, hoping to get outside quicker.
Inevitably it sounded like “Sum-of–piss!” but the school’s worst English teacher knew what Neil was saying. The cigarette in his mouth muffled his speech.
“You’ve got shit diction for a language teacher,” Fox noted.
Affectingly, Neil would roll off a perfect stream of profanity in Spanish or French or whatever tongue he chose that day. “Gimme a break, huh? I got seven minutes to rip two darts and get back in time for Davey Dickhead to mess-up verb conjugation! Christ, I should’ve stayed at the UN translating for those pendejos.” Jutting between tar-scarred fingers, an unlit cigarette made his voice much more palpable. Still losing the battle with his jacket, Neil exhausted a faint and defeated “F this place….”
“What do you want me to tell them today? You slipped in a puddle of piss and went to clean yourself?”
“You’re not in a god damn foxhole anymore, Gerry. Fuckin’ clean it up! Tell ’em I’m in the lavatory. Say bathroom; these morons wouldn’t understand lavatory.” Neil noticed the opened letter on his mentee’s desk and squawked, “And don’t stress about that letter. They’re fishing; I’ve been there before. They can’t prove shit. Head up, soldier.”
“Copy that. Hey, how do you say taking a shit in Mexican?” Fox asked.
“Suelta un deuce.”
“What about in kraut? Ich bin ein Berliner?”
“Nein. Scheiße! Lassen Sie einen Deuce fallen,” Neil hacked in reply.
Fox grinned, taking the mug from his lips, “Good copy.”
And with that, the school’s best Language teacher inevitably squeezed his way outside. The only notable daily change being the bass in Neil’s descriptions of bodily functions rolling out in his choice of tongues. A routinely ritualistic existence is what Fox told his therapists.
Snow fell. Watching Neil snake his way through the parking lot – an everchanging crayon box of dandruff-covered cars and colors – Fox couldn’t help but note the sway in Neil’s stance, more pronounced today. Or was it his?
Fox could see his friend’s red parka, could see him bracing against the wind, desperately trying to puff his cigarette to life. Idiot.
Retired CPT Gerald W. Fox hated teaching, worse than combat, mainly because he couldn’t strike back. Kids drove him nuts, and the hazard pay wasn’t worth it this time around. Why teach kids? He didn’t really know. He illogically reasoned that he liked to read; plus, he’d grown to enjoy Neil.
They first met when Fox returned from the Ramadi tour – his last. Assigned to Neil, Fox was to follow his mentor’s lead about how to navigate life as an educator. “There are three keys to being a good teacher; Uno: lay claim to your preferred shitter in the faculty lavatory – some people take liberties. Deux: always attend Thirst Thursdays and Tres: never bang any female in the Language Department because eventually, they’ll claim you gave them crabs in thirty different languages. Bang any dude you like if you swing that way, I don’t give a fuck.”
Thirsty Thursdays were bi-weekly traditions where faculty and staff downed drinks after direct deposits cleared. A bonding exercise in defeat. Neil took Fox to his first – four years ago.
After a few drinks, Fox learned of Neil’s trust fund, his ex-wives, his truncated tenure at the United Nations, and his proclivity for kickers. “These kids’ will torture you worse than any hadji, trust me. Listen sarge, one of these here and there never hurt anybody,” Neil rambled, suppressing a burp.
The holder of many tongues slid a blue, squared M pill into his neighbor’s palm.
“It’s Captain, actually,” Fox asserted. “What’s this?”
“A kicker. It helps with days. One of those and three beers or bourbons or whatever you put in your coffee these days, and you’ll be on solid ground again.”
Fox stared at his palm and the Crossed-sabers from his 3rd Armored Cavalry days resting between his left thumb and index finger in black ink. The principal asked him to cover up the tattoo when he first got the job, but Fox refused.
“I’m good,” Fox grinned, turning his palm’s contents over to its original lover.
With a glare in his eyes Fox hadn’t seen on this side of the Atlantic, his mentor leaned into him. “Listen, Fox, no one cares anymore. You’re done. You served us already. Sit back and relax. I’m only here to help you get through it, amigo. I’m sure you got shit you’re dealing with, yeah? Told me you caught your wifey banging a cop or some shit, right? Nightmares? PTSD type shit?”
“Who cares! You hear, me, private? This gig can be tit, amigo. If done right, this job can lead to a fairytale ending if you follow my lead. Relax,” Neil said. “Another round?”
“Copy that,” Fox said before swallowing the last of his bourbon with the first of his kickers.
“Excuse me, Mr. Fox, have you seen Mr. Hoey recently?” It was his principal. Il Duce.
“Suelta un deuce,” replied the English teacher.
“Pardon? Is he back from lunch yet?” intoned Principal Day.
The lunch period was ending. Wincing at his cooling coffee, Fox could hear Neil’s students returning. Walking back through the parking lot, Neil was desperately trying to prolong the life of his last cigarette, performing a perverse form of CPR, trying to breathe life back into his dying dart. Still swaying. Double-time, Neil!
“Lavatory. Said his stomach was out of sorts. Oh, there he is. How you feeling, Mr. Hoey?” Fox noted, taking another sip of coffee.
Stomping his feet while Superman-ing his parka, Neil replied in his best affronted French. “La merde dont vous parlez!”
Neil shuffled back to his classroom with a pathetic nod directed toward his boss. Mr. Fox thought he heard a muted “Heil Hitler!” escape the language teacher’s mustachioed lips. The bell rang, and Fox turned to his principal, swaying slightly.
Principal Day leaned toward Fox, glancing towards the English teacher’s desk, observing the opened letter he’d written earlier that morning. Fox thought, I don’t like to read anymore.
“Gerald, I see you’ve received my letter. This afternoon’s meeting is expository in nature only. Please, don’t feel threatened. We have some questions that need answering; however, you are encouraged to bring council if you deem necessary. Or perhaps Mr. Hoey?”
Fox looked over his seated students. He hated them. Snow falling led to his students whispering about school cancellation. As they rumored, shaking his thermos for remnants, Fox poured himself the last of his coffee.
A meeting! For what? Drinking coffee? Can’t even smell it. Maybe I’ll introduce a little breaching technique to that meeting of ours. Copy that, dickhead?
The snow was picking up as Fox was out of coffee. He could taste it now. A taste he faced during the ambush that took Sully, Watkinder, and Leahy. A taste reminiscent of when he found the firefighter in their bed. A linking taste to a fellow veteran’s poor decision; a pistol in his lap, truck’s sunroof opened to avoid piercing its roof. A taste.
He needed a kicker. He needed Neil.
Neil’s minions could be heard repeating his orations.
If done right, this job can lead to a fairytale ending if you follow my lead. Gerald Webb Fox – West Pointer, veteran, cuckold, Purple Heart and Silver Cross recipient – reached for the bottle marked ‘quarters’ in his desk drawer. One until the bell rings. His head snapped back to swallow. There was no more taste.
“Alright, maggots, let’s get back to it. Open up to Frost’s “Birches” and read in silence.”
Along with the slightest of ways, Fox silently prayed. “Make me a birch in paradise, O’ Lord. Let me smoke-check it and return. Return to the start of the fairytale. Before going over. Before she faded away. Before the taste didn’t. Maybe before meeting Neil. Copy that?”