My last parent interview of the day was late, by a good twenty minutes, and the damn meeting was only booked for fifteen. Truth was, I didn’t care that Derek’s folks hadn’t shown. For two hours I’d spent fifteen-minute slots explaining to overly optimistic parents how they’d raised kids as dumb as doornails. Nothing I hated more than parent interviews, except teaching in the 8:30 am session. No science to it; try teaching teenage zombies.
I was locking up Derek’s file when the clack of sharp heels ricocheted from the empty hallway. I turned and blinked twice, and thought, of course she’s late. Laura Mably was never on time for anything.
In college, I’d dragged her out the door to every exam. The faithful boyfriend who didn’t want her to fail. I’d teased her about her lateness, but even at nineteen she was confident. “It’s fashionable to be late,” she’d assured me. “I’m making an entrance.”
Some entrance. One look and you could see the real reason. Laura was scattered. Unfocused, distracted. She had to finish eating her sandwich or drying her hair. She couldn’t find her keys or her purse or her phone. You could feel her, but you couldn’t really gather her up. I hadn’t seen her in twenty years.
“Gary, honestly, is it you? No shit! You’re the prick that Derek’s so worked up about?”
She laughed and extended her hand, her nails no longer a ragged mess but those long plastic points all the moms seemed to sport. Still, her cashmere coat was buttoned haphazardly, her lipstick worn off. The blonde frizz around her ears still dazzling, like an angel’s halo.
I wiped my palm on my jeans and took her hand. How could I not? All day I’d pretended to care, and this wasn’t a stretch. Laura and I had been friends, then lovers, then nothing. She’d left me high and dry, went West on my dime, promised to repay me as soon as she landed. A few phone calls full of giddy excitement and guilty excuses, and then she’d stopped calling. Ghosted me, the kids call it now. In the last few years, when things got really bad, I’d tried Googling her name. On the slim chance she could help me out. Never found her. I’d had no idea Laura was Derek’s mom.
“Laura, look at you. Back in the boonies, of all places. And a tiger mother to boot. I’m shocked to the core.” I sat down and she sat too, her wrists as small as ever.
“Gary, wow. Teaching jailbait. Didn’t you say anyone over ten isn’t worth having in a class?”
She was right, my dream had been to teach the middle grades. Lovely little innocents, eyes wide and brains unfried. Kids who still thought science was a miracle, who thought the science teacher was a magician. When I graduated teachers’ college in the nineties, principals snapped up guys like me, thought it enlightened to put a young beard in with the babies. Till all the church crap exploded, flushed the snakes from the grass. I’d been bumped up to grade twelve.
“Gary, look. I’m sure you’re a great teacher. You certainly helped me get through school.”
I’d helped her leave school too. Did Laura remember the money she owed me? I looked for extra colour in her cheeks. Nothing.
“But Derek’s not like you, Gare, he’s got no head for formulas. He’s a visual learner. Show him a YouTube video, he can build anything. I see the textbooks he brings home. No way that kid’s going to sit still to read all that.”
It occurred to me she might have forgotten. Misplaced the memory like her gloves. Or buried it in a cluttered kitchen sink. Those fancy nails didn’t scrub toilets.
Now Laura leaned forward and her voice, I swear, took on the same begging tone she’d used to get the money. “I’m glad to see you, Gare. You can help. If he doesn’t get his GPA up, he’ll never get into Polytech. I mean, what are the odds it’d be me and you having this conversation? Reason for everything right?”
It hadn’t been a lot of money. But it wasn’t mine to give. I’d been holding it for a guy at school, his stash. Jared had made a trip or two to Jamaica, he didn’t want it sitting around his parent’s place, didn’t want to open a bank account. I was one of the few guys with an apartment off campus. In return, Jared had kept me mellow and high that semester.
Laura got a big break, said she needed to get out to Vancouver. I’d suspected she was following a guy she’d met in Miami on spring break, but she was cagey. Said she was never going to graduate, and she had a modelling contract lined up and they’d repay her flight once she arrived. I thought she was beautiful enough, and dumb enough, for that to be true. I’d gotten her to exams, but she didn’t always pass them. She’d tell her parents once she was settled. Her parents were good for it, she said.
After she ghosted me, I looked them up, in their big mansion up in Parkdale. I ended up leaving cryptic phone messages “It’s about Laura.” and then I got a recording and then a busy signal. I suppose I could have taken the bus up there, but really, what would I have said? They’d hardly believe their daughter had stiffed a guy. I didn’t have a receipt.
I fingered the raised scar across my left eyebrow as Laura waxed about Derek and his bright future. The beating had been pretty awful; I’d almost lost this eye. Their boots had damaged my right kidney, but you can live with one kidney. Teachers have great benefits; you can’t even tell I’m wearing dentures. Her eyes avoided the bump on my nose.
I looked at those fine nails.
“Still smoke pot, Laura? Seems pretty innocent compared to what the kids do these days.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she sat back. She’d known the money wasn’t mine, was owed to a dealer. Jared had kept her mellow that semester too.
“Derek’s not doing drugs, Gary. And I resent you suggesting it.” That sounded like Parkdale. “He’s a good kid, clean as a whistle.”
“Not at all, Laura. Not at all.” My gums hurt from smiling. “I’m just saying, hard to get into the good schools if you have a record. Bout once a month now they bring the drug-sniffing dogs through the halls, checking the lockers.”
I knew where Derek’s locker was, not the exact number, but that’d be easy to find out in the office. It was late, even the janitors were gone home.
Laura sniffed, then leaned over the plastic molded chair to rummage around in the red leather bag she’d set there. It was huge, just the right dimensions to catch anything she’d misplaced. I heard her keys rattle. She pulled out an oversized pair of Tom Ford Aviators and slid them on. In the mirror shades I could see the half-bit lobe of my left ear.
“Geez, how much was it, Gary? Two grand?’
“In yesterday’s dollars, Laura.” You’d think a science teacher would be good in math, but it wasn’t my strong suit. I preferred elements to numbers.
“Okay, you’re right.” She had a cheque book on her lap, and she rooted around in the big leather bag again. I held out a pen, but she ignored it. Laura was proud of her faults. My mom used to joke she’d take Laura’s purse on Let’s Make a Deal. Even Monty Hall couldn’t beat Laura’s mishmash.
“Maybe 20K, Laura? Looks like you’ve done alright for yourself.”
She sat upright and showed me a silver pistol. She pointed the tip right at my chest and my scrotum shrank. The dude I saw in her Aviators was a shade paler.
“Honest to god, Gary. Jared was sure we’d run into you, but I told him no way you’d be living this close to Parkdale. And Derek’s way past elementary school…”
I didn’t own a gun, but I knew there was a silencer on this one. Highschool kids are interested in certain kinds of science, like how gunpowder works and what lye does to a corpse.
“I can get him a passing C,” I said. “I’m not a magician, I’m a science teacher.”
Laura dropped the gun in her bag, took my pen and wrote her new name with a flourish. She tore out the cheque and handed it to me. I didn’t look down at the amount.
“Made out to cash,” she said. “Jared and I appreciate it, Gare. And Derek too of course. He loves science.”
I looked into her face and saw my ugly beaten mug reflected back.