Featured in Colorado Review
The Common EraFeatured, Fiction
Published Summer 2012
The third Wednesday in September is Back to School Night, and as Stephen goes over his World History syllabus, he avoids the eyes of Mona McCullough and feels choked by the collar of his French-cuffed shirt. The summer is behind him, but its heat endures, heavy as ever, and as he presses on about the weight of the past, sweat soaks cold ovals at his armpits. The fluorescent lights remind him of an interrogation.
This is Stephen’s second year at Alamo Heights, and though he’s used to the glazed looks of seventeen-year-olds, parents still make him squirm. Crammed into desks, they put on tense grins while Stephen hashes out the first six-week grading period—the Roman Empire, an essay on a major historical figure. Stephen knows they’re wary of him, these mothers and fathers, troubled by his long hair and stud earrings, the same quirks that, along with his founding of the school’s cycling club, have made him so popular among students. Unlike his colleagues—frock-clad women in orthopedic shoes or paunchy men in plaid shirts—Stephen sports slim-fit jeans and never wears a tie. He is boyish and fun and well put-together, with green eyes and a complexion soft as whipped cream. But what separates him from his fellow teachers is greater than looks and age; Stephen understands his students. He gets them. In times of teenage strife, when one of the girls is sure she’s too fat to find a date for Senior Party, when a boy doesn’t know if it’s okay to wear socks with Top-Siders, Stephen is an able listener and adviser, a new member of the adult tribe, seasoned by age yet unspoiled by its coming strain. He could easily pass as one of their older brothers—could almost pass as one of them.
At the classroom’s back-left corner, beneath a poster of the Code of Hammurabi, Mona McCullough crosses her legs and dangles a beaded sandal. Her toenails are red as valentines. Her pupils dilate; her hand goes up.
“Mr. Sledge,” she calls him, although they’re on a first-name basis. “Would you mind telling us what’s so special about history?”
Stephen looks down at his loafers and pinches a grin. “People think of history as a straight line,” he says. “One event after the other.” He turns to the chalkboard and, with a quick flick of his wrist, scrawls a circle in its center, a lonesome blotch on a clean slate. “But to me, history’s a roundabout we’re stuck in forever. The scenery changes—mega-churches replace cathedrals, the Coliseum gives way to the Alamodome—but in the end, we’re making the same mistakes as the Romans and the Greeks. And if I can show students this pattern, then maybe they’ll decide to make some headway. Maybe they’ll be the ones to break the cycle.”
“Pretty ambitious,” Mona says with a smile. Her lips, like her son Richard’s, are a supple pink—just like the Saltillo that tiles the McCulloughs’ pool house.
“I don’t know,” says Stephen. “I think that’s every teacher’s goal—at least it should be.”
“Well, our kids can only hope for more teachers like you.” Mona’s bobbing sandal slips from her foot and hits the linoleum with a smack.
In June and July, Stephen moonlighted as an ap test tutor. Twice a week, after sunset rides with the cycling club, he stopped by the McCulloughs’ house and drilled Richard on historical vocab lists and the geography of dead civilizations. Richard was energetic and hardworking—eager to please—and Stephen liked tutoring him, found it sweet the way his cheeks burned red when praised, found himself antsy as he leaned over Richard to check his work, the boy’s hair a nose-tingling mix of chlorine and sweat. The end of their sessions often bled into dinnertime, and Mona insisted he stay for meals. Her husband, Richard’s father, had been a petroleum engineer and died in Iran when a burst derrick pitched him from a three-story stanchion. In private, Mona confessed to Stephen that Richard had trouble fitting in, that the kids in his grade were always bullying him. “What he needs is someone to look out for him,” she said. “A big brother.” She rested her hand on Stephen’s. “I don’t have to tell you how mean those boys can be.” Some nights, with dinner finished and Richard out in the pool, Mona brimmed one last glass of chardonnay for Stephen, asking him with a smirk to keep an old lady company. Although tired and already tipsy, Stephen obliged her, always willing to remain in the kitchen, to smile and nod and talk to a mother about her son, both of them happy in the knowledge that he was just outside, floating safely atop the pool’s green glow. Drunk on the ensuing rides home, Stephen veered his custom Cannondale and curved through the dark as though on the trade routes in the pages of Richard’s prep books.
In the quiet after Mona’s compliment, Stephen swallows and dabs at his lips with his tongue. He thanks her and starts to say she’s being too kind—that she’s making too much of his impact on Richard—but the bell rings and Back to School Night ends. The room rumbles with thirty desks being dragged across the floor, and the parents brisk past Stephen without a word, as if he were a stranger in the street. He is reminded of his orientation with Vice Principal Sweeney. “Alamo Heights is like an island,” the man said, making scissors of his fingers and pointing at Stephen’s long hair. “And when something strange washes ashore, no one’s afraid to air their concerns.” Afterward, Stephen stared into his bathroom vanity, eyeing his face as he forced smiles and practiced introducing himself again and again. “Hi there,” he said. “I’m Stephen Sledge,” and with every repetition, he flattened his grin and assumed a deeper voice. Stephen faces the chalkboard and drags the eraser around the circle he’s drawn, blurring it without wiping it clean.
In fourth period the next day, Stephen tugs a string and reveals a map of the Mediterranean, circa 200 bce. A thin line traces the path of Hannibal’s attack in the Second Punic War—across Gaul and the Rhone, over the snow-thick Alps and finally into northern Italy.
“Instead of striking from the sea, like the Romans expected, Hannibal took the long road,” Stephen says. “He and his troops and war elephants trekked a thousand miles out of their way. They crossed mountains in the dead of winter—all for the sake of surprise. And it worked.” He nods at the map, satisfied.
“Yeah, but what happened to the elephants?” one boy calls from the back, and Stephen says elephants and blizzards don’t mix.
“It didn’t matter, though. Hannibal knew the value of careful plans, but he was still bold enough to take risks. He toed the line between the old and the new, and that’s what made him one of the finest leaders in history. That’s what made him great.”
The Hannibal lecture is one of Stephen’s all-time favorites; it shows students that the truth can be stranger than fiction, that history is rife with wild characters. It reminds him of his freshman year at the University of Texas, when history switched from subject to career. The professor of his Civilization seminar was a new PhD from Cal Berkeley, a broad-shouldered Greek with a caramel tan and thick black hair—the sharp profile of an emperor cast on an ancient coin. Dr. Lambros. His lion-roar lectures shocked entire auditoriums into sudden gasps, and every Tuesday and Thursday from 1:00 to 2:30, Stephen sat rigid, his gaze trained on the dimly lit dais. Excited to the point of nervousness, he found himself unable to focus, too absorbed in Lambros himself, so coolheaded and bright, so powerful in his element. Stephen sometimes listened with eyes closed, and it was like hearing God himself tell the story of mankind, as if Lambros had loomed over the world since the dawn of time. After that first term, Stephen shirked Spanish and trig to enroll in more of his classes—The Pre-modern World, The Fall of the Holy Roman Empire. Near the end of his sophomore year, he stopped by his professor’s office to pick up an essay, expecting only a ta, but instead, Stephen found Lambros there and was thrilled when the man said he was impressed by his work, then stunned when he asked Stephen to walk and talk with him as he headed to his car.
Out on Guadalupe, the late spring air damp as a sponge, Stephen plodded alongside Lambros in careful steps. Aware more than ever of his body’s movements, the way he looked in another man’s eyes, he stood up straight and answered the professor’s questions in short, dumb bursts. Did he have plans for the summer? No, not yet. Had he considered a specific track of study? Ancient Rome, for sure, and when Stephen added that he favored Pre-Schism to Post-, Lambros stopped in his tracks and said, “In that case, Stephen, I think I’ve just found you a nice set of summer plans.” By then, they were face-to-face in the faculty lot on Nueces and mlk. Heat sizzled from the blacktop; sweat slid down Stephen’s spine. “How do you mean?” he asked, and as Dr. Lambros unlocked the door to his decade-old Mercedes, he said he was leading an excursion to Italy—six weeks in Europe, for credit. “And if I write your letter,” he said, “you’re sure to get a scholarship.” Stephen’s face must’ve broken into color, because Lambros chuckled and touched his forearm. “I think you should go, Stephen,” he said. “A trip like this will change your life.”
At the sound of the bell, the classroom rumbles with two-dozen upperclassmen headed off campus for lunch—a noise, Stephen imagines, like Hannibal’s elephants trudging toward the Alps. Their chatter of where to eat and who’s driving whom fades as they stroll down the south-wing hallway—all but Richard, who lingers in back, loading his Jansport with the care of a paratrooper. He zips the bag and walks toward Stephen’s desk with his hands in his pockets. “I think I’ve got a subject for my term paper,” Richard says, his gingham shirt baring a triangle of skin at its collar.
Stephen waits for him to say Caesar or Cleopatra, the same historical figures his students always choose, but Richard looks right at him and says, “Nero.”
Impressed, Stephen asks Richard how he’ll portray the emperor, but Richard only scrunches his shoulders and says he hasn’t gotten that far.
“Historians have Nero pigeonholed,” Stephen says. “He killed his mom and stood around playing a fiddle during the Great Fire. He squandered his potential because he couldn’t keep his urges in check. But experts these days are giving Nero a second look, and it turns out he might not have been so bad. After all, he consolidated power, built roads, and passed laws to help the lower classes. A lot of small victories. In the end, he might be a scapegoat, labeled bad just because he ruled differently than the emperors before him.”
Richard stops him with a more-than-he-bargained-for grin and says, “You’re really something, Mr. Sledge. I miss our sessions and having you over for dinner. My mom misses it, too.” There is a longing to Richard’s voice, and at the sound of it, Stephen’s palms go damp. Last Fourth of July, he’d been invited to the McCulloughs’ for a barbeque. After a dinner lit by citronella candles, their stomachs full of hot dogs and potato salad, he and Mona and Richard played a game of Marco Polo beneath a bruised purple sky. Each taking turns as “it,” they blindly waded toward voices, cutting through the water in pursuit of the others’ cold flesh. Stephen stares up at Richard and then out of his classroom’s door and into the hallway. His lips manage a smile. “Me, too,” he tells him. “I miss it, too.”
Friday is Alamo Heights’s first home football game, and campus is abuzz with fanfare. Megaphoned cheerleaders stunt and flip; Broadway sounds echo with the drum line’s booms. Heights won last year’s 4-a state championship, and in the pre-kickoff dusk, hundreds of ’09ers marvel at the unveiling of a commemorative statue: an enormous mule, the school’s mascot, frozen at the peak of triumph, furiously bucking its legs at the sky. In the back, Stephen stands below an oak tree draped in ribbons of blue and gold. His new-faculty status requires him to work crowd control, and for four quarters it’ll be his duty to keep an eye on students, most of whom are buzzed and there only to flirt and screw around. He follows the crowd into the stadium and rendezvouses beneath the bleachers with Vice Principal Sweeney and Officer Howard, a near-retired ah cop whom everyone calls Bud.
“Now remember,” Bud says, handing over a walkie-talkie. “Plenty of kids here have had a little to drink. But we’re only after the ones who can’t blend in. I don’t have the stones to put up with fifty bitching moms and lawyer daddies.”
“So if you see some kid about to puke all over the stands,” says Mr. Sweeney, “pull him aside and ring us up.”
During the first half, Stephen makes an aimless scan of the aisles, then climbs the stairs to the press box. On the field, boys form phalanxes and plow into one another like gladiators, pawing and pulling their opponents to the ground. Stephen imagines the feel of those form-fitting pants, the hot friction beneath their shell of pads. He wonders what it’s like to clench your arms about another man’s shoulders, to stand so close in a moment of gridlock. How does it feel?
Parched at the start of halftime, Stephen descends the bleachers for a wax-cup Coke. But before he reaches the snack stand, Mr. Sweeney’s voice crackles from the walkie-talkie at his waist. A scuffle by the north-end bathrooms.
By the time Stephen arrives, the fight is already over. Bud and Mr. Sweeney each clutch a boy by the shoulders, and it takes Stephen a long second glance to see that the one in Bud’s control is Richard. Nacho cheese splashes his pressed white oxford; he breathes in uneven bursts. The other boy won’t stop trying to thrash his way out of Mr. Sweeney’s shoulder lock. The vice principal demands that he calm down and asks why he threw food on Richard. The kid wipes spit from his lips and says, “Because he’s a fag.”
“Excuse me?” Mr. Sweeney asks.
“I said, because he’s a fag.”
People in line for the restroom swivel their heads. Richard glues his stare to the asphalt and chokes a sob. Stephen wants to give him a look that says don’t worry, everything will be okay, but the boy won’t meet his eyes. Richard asks Officer Bud if he can go—he just wants to go home. Bud and Mr. Sweeney share a look and a nod, and Richard hurries off without a word.
“That’s right,” the other kid says. He shakes his head and laughs. “I guess that’s what y’all have to do, huh? Let the little fag go home and cry?”
“Jesus Christ,” says Stephen. “Are you just gonna let him go on that way all night?” He thinks back to Sweeney’s talk—the island of Alamo Heights—and pictures Richard adrift off its shores.
Bud and Mr. Sweeney ignore Stephen as they haul the kid off to write him up. Stephen hears the band’s routine—drum beats pulsing in the still night air. He tightens his ponytail and moves toward the streets.
A quarter mile from the stadium, Stephen spots Richard as he cuts through the pale lights of the Sunset Ridge strip mall. Richard’s shoulders are rolled forward and tense, and when Stephen calls his name, he looks back and waves his teacher off.
“I’m okay, Mr. Sledge,” he says and stops. “Just leave me alone.”
Stephen jogs to catch up and asks what happened.
“Nothing happened,” Richard says. The cheese on his shirt has dried into a paste. He holds the fabric away from his chest to keep it from sticking. “I guess I’m just the one they have to pick on, Mr. Sledge.”
Stephen feels Richard’s sadness. He sees a boy whose father is dead and who’s been cast out on a Friday night. He wants to tell him he isn’t alone. “People spend their whole lives trying to be someone they’re not, Richard. And that makes them feel terrible and confused. But you can’t let somebody else’s sadness make you feel bad about yourself.”
“So what?” the boy asks. “I have to stand around and take it forever?”
“No, Richard. You just have to be who you are. In the end, that’s all we’ve got.”
Richard stifles a sob and leans into him with a tired hug. Surprised, Stephen brings his hand to the back of the boy’s head. He’s cast back to the summer, to the McCulloughs’ kitchen on the Fourth of July. After dinner and Marco Polo, the three of them dried off and headed in for cupcakes, but once Richard finished, he dove back into the pool and left Stephen alone with Mona. Still in her bathing suit, she poured two glasses of wine and sat across from him, eyes on the table, trying, he knew, to hide her drunken grin.
“Be honest now, Stephen,” she said. “You’ve got a girlfriend, right? Some pretty, young thing?” Mona leaned back, swirled the wine in her glass. “I’ll bet you do, Mr. Sledge. And I’ll bet she hates my guts.” Behind her—out in the yard—a light clicked on. Stephen’s throat tightened. He strained to keep his eyes on Mona. He told her he didn’t have a girlfriend, but if he did, she’d understand how much this time meant to Richard. At the sound of her son’s name, Mona winced and laid a hand on her stomach. She sipped her wine and changed the subject, started telling Stephen about their place down in Port Aransas. Buying it was the first thing she’d done with the inheritance from her husband, she said, a little escape for her and her son. And Stephen pretended to listen, all the while sneaking glances over her shoulder, where a light in the pool house made its window a perfect frame as Richard dropped his trunks to the tile. Tan brown skin—tan as the cobbled roads in Italy. The boy towel dried his chest and hair, and Stephen’s mind ran thick with memories buried like artifacts under years of hurt: the summer in Rome, that last day on the hillside with Lambros. And after Richard had stepped into his khakis and buttoned his shirt, after the three of them had said their good-byes, and Stephen was, at last, riding home alone on his bike, he was left with a single question: was Richard staring at his own reflection, or was he, like Stephen, gazing across the yard into a square of light, a window that enclosed perfectly what he wanted the most?
Richard lets go of Stephen and takes a breath, looking around the lot to make sure no one’s seen their embrace. Deep in his gut, there’s an urge to ask the boy if he wants to walk with him the five minutes to his apartment—he could have a glass of water, a fresh shirt. But Richard has calmed down, the upset-red gone from his face. He says he better get home and asks Stephen not to tell his mom about his crying. “Your secret’s safe with me,” Stephen calls as the boy walks away. In the distance, he hears the roar of the crowd and remembers the game. He’s out of the walkie-talkie’s range, and the second half has started without him. Stephen races back to the stadium and ducks into the bathroom. He scrubs the cheese from his shirt.
KSAT-12 predicts a heat wave for Columbus Day weekend, and by the time the cycling club rolls to a stop at the Quarry Market, sweat drips down Stephen’s back and drenches his nylon jersey. Helmet in hand, he cools off in the shadows of the towering smokestacks, once landmarks of the Alamo Cement Plant, now a glorified billboard for an outdoor mall. Stephen scans the heat-shivering asphalt and pictures a time when the P.F. Chang’s was a mixer and block saws, the Regal 16 a warehouse stacked with TNT. He wonders what the men who toiled these grounds would say if they could see this place, if they could stand on the edge of the gravel pit, the epic hole they carved into the earth, and stare down at the hundred-dollar-a-round golf course it’s become. Would they be in awe, or would they feel cheated, the legacy of their efforts lost to progress?
As the last club members load their bikes and disappear down Basse, Stephen looks around but doesn’t see Richard. He worries that something’s happened—or worse: he’s left without saying good-bye. But then he spots the boy up the road, trudging beside his bike with his head slung low. He glides over and asks what’s wrong.
“It’s the chain,” Richard says. “I think it’s broken.”
Stephen upends Richard’s bike, spins the wheels, and studies the chain as it hangs about the derailleur’s jagged teeth. Richard looks on. “How do you know so much about bikes?” he asks.
Stephen presses the gear shaft and jerks at the pedals. And as the wheel spins, he tells Richard about the farm where he grew up in East Texas—a hundred acres in the middle of nowhere, just Stephen and his mom. His mother had never learned to drive, never had to, and during holidays, with no school bus to catch, Stephen often felt trapped. By the summer he turned twelve, he’d grown sick of it, and so he worked odd jobs at neighboring farms—cutting brush and mending fences—until he saved enough to buy himself a ten-speed at the Tyler Walmart. “And it was like eighty-nine bucks bought me a ticket to freedom.” Stephen gives the pedals a final crank, and the chain resettles in perfect, working order.
Richard leans in and runs a hesitant finger along the bike’s parts, streaking his hand in grease. “What happened to your dad?”
“He died,” Stephen says. “He died when I was a little kid.”
“Mine, too,” Richard says, even though Stephen already knows it. Then he sits down beside his teacher. “Thanks for what you said in the parking lot on Friday, Mr. Sledge. It really helped.”
With Richard so close, the air seems scarce. Stephen closes his eyes and tries to find the words to let the boy know he can be there for him always. But, in the end, all he can manage is a question about Richard’s term paper. Richard rolls his eyes and says it’s finished and then gets up to leave. Stephen wishes him a nice three-day weekend, and Richard says that he and his mom are bound for one last trip to Port A. “You should come by for a swim while we’re gone,” he says. “This heat won’t last.” Stephen says that sounds fine.
Richard gets onto his bike and balances with his hands on the brakes. “Actually, Mr. Sledge,” he says, “I do have one question about my paper. But it’s probably a dumb one.”
“No such thing.”
“Okay,” Richard says. “I know BC means before Christ, but what’s the deal with BCE?”
“CE stands for the Common Era. It’s more politically correct. After all,” he says, “not everyone’s a Christian.”
Richard cocks his head. “But what do we have in common with the Romans? Life’s completely different. We have cars and planes and cell phones. We have the Internet.”
Stephen says differences like those are only skin deep. He tells Richard that—whether it’s today or a thousand years ago—people are all linked by a shared set of hopes and dreams. They suffer the same fears; they make the same mistakes. “It’s what unites us as human beings. And years from now, when you and I are long dead, two people will be having this exact conversation. That’s the truth of the Common Era,” he says. “And it’s as frustrating as it is beautiful.”
Richard stares at Stephen. “Mr. Sledge, do you believe in God?”
Stephen bites his lip and thinks of the boy’s father, dead and buried in the cradle of civilization. “I believe in history, Richard,” he says. “People spend their whole lives fretting over the future. But all you have to do to understand what’s coming is look back at what’s already happened.”
The holiday weekend unfolds in a busy stretch of essay grading. Stephen saves Richard’s paper for last, hoping for a Sunday surprise, but by the bottom of the first paragraph, he drops the stapled pages into his lap. Instead of digging deep to form his own views on Nero, Richard has played it safe and gone with the crowd, regurgitating the usual blame and condemnation. “Nero,” he writes, “wasn’t terrible, but he got handed an empire before he knew who he was, and he definitely wasn’t fit to rule.”
As nighttime settles on San Antonio, and without plans on the eve of a school-less Monday, Stephen decides to research a few textbooks for next year. Always eager to breathe new life into his subject, he logs into the American Council for Education’s website and searches their titles list. After a few minutes in the database, he finds a new release in the McGraw-Hill section, a handsome hardcover called Ancient History. Stephen reads its abstract. He likes its division of topics and its use of graphic aides—there’s even a special emphasis on Pre-schism Rome. Stephen smiles, encouraged, but as he scrolls down to the “Learn More” link at the bottom of the page, he sees the name. Lambros. His eyes bore into it. Stephen holds his breath, and with a shaky hand he leads the mouse over the “Excerpt” link. He reads the passages, and in no time the voice in his head is lost in that familiar, old roar. Stephen stands from his desk but sits back down again. He clicks “Author Info,” and a black and white image fills the screen: Lambros at the base of the Trevi Fountain. Stephen took this photo with Lambros’s Olympus five years ago, this one and a roll of others he’s never seen, as his professor steered them on a private Vespa tour through Rome. With the tiny motor buzzing between his thighs, Stephen clutched happily at his teacher’s waist as they snaked through cobblestone alleys, the great monuments of antiquity blurring at their sides. Lambros parked at the Baths of Diocletian and motioned for Stephen to follow, and the two of them grinned as they ran past a forest of gray-blue ruins—painted tombs and funerary urns, deserted and unfinished. They came to the edge of a hill, and Lambros spread a blanket and uncorked a bottle of Chianti. Side by side, they panted between swigs of warm wine, laughing at their luck, to be alone together in this beautiful place. The trip was a month old by then, and in those weeks so far away from Texas, Stephen had come to feel almost eerily at home. He took comfort in Lambros, how he always sat near him on bus tours, their legs brushing from time to time, the way he encouraged him, resting a hand on Stephen’s shoulder as he looked into his green eyes and called him special—really and truly special. And on that day, when the sun crashed into the Roman skyline and the tense laughter melted into a moment of perfect silence, Stephen leaned back and accepted a long-hidden part of himself, accepted that this day with Lambros would mark the start of a new era.
But how rough Lambros had been—how heavy his body weighed atop Stephen’s. And as he pushed a wine-stained tongue into Stephen’s mouth and groped and tugged at his belt, Stephen panicked and clamped down hard with his teeth. With a grunt, Lambros shoved him and spat at the ground. “What’s the matter with you?” he asked. But Stephen couldn’t answer. Lambros shooed him off the blanket and yanked it up in a wad. “I thought we were on the same page, Stephen,” he said. “I thought you knew what was going on.” Later, as Stephen sat alone and watched the sunset’s last traces of orange burn into the horizon, he marked the similarities of dawn and dusk—saw for the first time how easily the two can be confused.
Stephen shuts off his computer and stares out his living room window. Moonlight strikes the security bars and casts a cage-like shadow. He closes his eyes and sees Lambros. He knows he will not be able to sleep. He pulls on his swimsuit and shoes and is out the door too fast to think of a helmet—too fast even to tie back his hair.
Stephen plunges into the McCulloughs’ unlit pool, swimming end to end until he’s out of breath. With his ears underwater, he can hear the steady thud of his heart. He pictures the pathways of his veins, the blood cells and the air in an endless exchange of old and new. He closes his eyes and feels tired enough to drift off. But then a sound: a muffled voice, and a light.
“I was worried you weren’t gonna come,” Richard says. He wears swim trunks and carries a sweaty, red plastic cup.
Stephen holds himself in the bright green light. “You said you’d be at the beach.”
“I told Mom I had too much homework.” Richard sits and tests the water with his feet. He asks if Stephen’s had a chance to grade his paper. There is booze on his breath. Stephen says he won’t get to it until tomorrow. “It’s not very good,” Richard confesses, his lips slanting in an awkward smile. “I tried not to pigeon-crow Nero like you said, but everything I read made him out to be so terrible.”
“Pigeonhole,” Stephen says in a teacher’s reflex that makes him cringe. “Either way, I’m sure your paper’s fine.” Richard’s legs kick so close he could reach out and grab them. “You’re a smart kid,” he says, “and it’s hard to argue with so much history.”
Richard takes a long slug of his drink and looks skyward. “Do you ever wonder about Columbus?” he asks. “Like, when he landed here, do you think he ever could’ve imagined what this place would become? America and cities and suburbs and swimming pools?”
This time Stephen doesn’t correct Richard’s error. He arcs his head up to the starless night. “I don’t think he could’ve ever guessed what the new world would become,” Stephen says. “But when he saw all that land, unspoiled and ready to be explored—well, I can imagine how excited he must’ve been.”
“To Columbus,” Richard says, raising his cup. He slips into the pool and floats over to Stephen. “How about a game?”
Stephen feels woozy, the water suddenly cold. “What should we play?”
He hands Stephen his cup, and Stephen takes it.
Stephen sloshes about the pool with his eyes shut, hands gliding atop its glassy surface as his calls of “Marco” fill the night. Richard shouts, “Polo,” from one side of the pool and then the other, answering only when he feels like it. The boy’s voice is playful, and Stephen knows he’s having fun.
Stephen calls, “Marco,” and waits, but, this time, there’s no answer. “You know, Richard,” he says, mock serious, “there are rules to this game.” At last, from the deep end, Richard yelps, “Polo.” Stephen takes a breath and makes his move, swimming through the dark waters toward Richard, kicking so hard it hurts, the idea of touching the boy already half-terrifying. He wants to hold Richard with care, to tag him and then let their embrace linger, so that as they tread water, chest to chest, Richard will see that he’s safe with Stephen, will understand that, in his teacher’s care, things can be better. But as Stephen reaches the deep end, his outstretched palms touch only the concrete wall. He comes up and cries, “Marco,” and, as soon as the word leaves his lips, he hears it: the patter of wet feet on cement. Stephen opens his eyes to Richard racing for the pool house, sees the bob and weave of his drunken run.
“Fish out of water!” Stephen shouts. “Fish out of water!”
Stephen hoists himself out of the pool and begins to chase the boy. Richard looks back and knows he’s done for, and he shoots Stephen a big, dumb grin—the look of a kid busted with his hand in the candy jar. And as Richard crosses into the pool house, he’s breathing hard and happy and laughing—laughing right up to the moment his feet hit that smooth Saltillo. And then he’s down, face first. A fall so fast, it’s hard to believe. Stephen sees the slip plain and clear, but it’s the sound he’ll remember: the pop of Richard’s nose and the sickening clap of teeth on tile. He hears it still as he hovers over the boy.
“Richard,” he whispers. “Richard, can you hear me?”
With his jaw clenched, Stephen flips Richard over, and as he takes in the mess of the boy’s face, he feels like crying. Richard’s nose is askew. He’s missing teeth. Blood bubbles about the curves of his nostrils. Stephen rests his hand on Richard’s heart and counts its throbbing beats. He listens to the shallow strain of his breaths, sprints across the room, and dials 911. He can barely speak and has to stammer out the McCulloughs’ address three times before the operator gets it.
Stephen drops the phone into its cradle and starts back toward Richard, but a glimpse of himself in the pool house windows traps him in place. In the cold darkness, half green from the light of the pool, he is shaking, scared and skinny as a kid. He falls to his knees beside Richard and looks down on the wreck of the boy’s face, hoping his wounds won’t scar. And then Stephen sees Richard for what he is—a boy who needed someone to play with, a role model, a friend. The siren of an ambulance blooms and dulls. Stephen tries hard to imagine what comes next, but all is unclear. He knows only that very soon the paramedics will storm in, and that before they cart the boy away, they will ask Stephen if he is a relative, if he is Richard’s big brother. This is the way things are handled. And though Stephen wishes he could lie to them, he knows that he won’t; he will tell them only that he’s the boy’s history teacher. He lays a hand on Richard’s chest and counts the boy’s heartbeats. And as the sirens draw nearer, he pictures frozen boulders of elephants dead in the snow and sees Rome swallowed in a sea of flame. These are the lessons from the past. Stephen knows them all too well.
William Torrey was raised in Texas and educated in Louisiana and Georgia. His work has previously appeared in the Hawaii Review, and his story “Trabajar” won Zone 3’s 2011 Prize in Fiction. He is currently at work on a collection of stories called “Alamo Heights” and teaches writing at the University of New Orleans.