The warped boards out front creaked and alerted Celia to company. She eased up from the living room sofa, set Scott’s wrinkled shirt on a kitchen chair, and greeted the doorbell. No longer tied down by proper protocol for a faculty member’s wife, she audibly sighed, pulled open the door, and stared at the two pairs of parents who filled her porch.
Rippy and Sterling led with matching sunburst yellow sweaters, soft taupe khakis, and loafers. Celia turned to the other set of parents. Kit and Bobo sported bright orange sweaters, patronizing the same boutiques as Rippy and Sterling. The blond wives appeared to have coordinated their spring attire.
Celia was in slight awe of the thoughtlessly cheery-colored couples. Through her teary eyes, their tanned faces and bright knits resembled a swirling blur of butterflies. She blinked at her tears and they appeared more like wasps. The hairs on her arms rose like students during morning attendance, shouting “present” before returning to their normal state of insouciance.
Composing herself while she scooped her shoulder-length black hair behind her ears, Celia felt she could do this once more for Scott. Though brushing her hair had not occurred to her until this moment. The strands were stringy between her fingers and she tried to remember if it had been two or three days since she’d showered. Feeling all of her 42 years, she stepped aside so the parents could enter. “Thank you for coming.”
Rippy twisted her weighted wedding diamonds. “Of course. We’re so — ”
“ — as she said.” Sterling nodded to his wife.
Kit and Bobo shifted slightly, conceding that Sterling and Rippy had already said too much. The couples from The School moved as a pack to the living room.
Scott and Celia had accumulated two sofas, a couple of stuffed armchairs, and a random assortment of hassocks packed with crumpled Philadelphia Inquirer comics. He’d insisted on getting the hard copy as well as having online access. Their porch, in 2018, was the block’s solitary, anachronistic newspaper delivery site.
Rippy and Sterling commandeered the armchairs and positioned themselves at opposite sides of the living room, where they could communicate using the slightest gesture or glance. Kit and Bobo appropriated the closer sofa, attempting to perch on the frayed ends, but instead sinking toward the back; the cushions had been resilient for years until recently, when they’d given up, worn and lumpy.
Celia wilted onto the other sofa. She was learning how to entertain people when all she wanted was Scott and a night of unbroken sleep next to him. Nonetheless, she had the hostess role down, beginning with making these imposers feel at home. “Can I get you anything? Coffee?”
“Oh, no. That’s not why we’re here.” Rippy raised one eyebrow slightly at Sterling. She chaired the fundraising committee for The School but in this setting deferred to her husband.
Sterling tipped his brow to acknowledge that Rippy had given her cue. He shifted in the armchair. “Our Crystal was in your husband’s class. History.”
“That’s what he taught,” Celia said. She tried to sit tall, with her shoulders upright, but fatigue settled in, sapping her limited tolerance for entertaining her husband’s students’ parents. She felt pale and drained, and wondered where these visitors had gotten so bronzed. Some island? Their own islands? She and Scott used to call them the Entitlement Class. He meant the parents but she meant the parents and their offspring. Nodding around the room, her gaze shifted from one parent to the other, trying to keep them straight. She wondered about Rippy and Sterling’s, and Kit and Bobo’s, true names. Perhaps Scott had known; perhaps, those were their real names. Celia almost smiled.
Kit tapped her foot. “Understand that our Acadia was simply distraught.” Kit looked to Bobo, who dropped his chin slightly. Apparently pleased with herself, Kit repeated, “Distraught.”
Celia went back into hostess mode. “Seventh grade history. Both of your girls are in Scott’s class. He’s very fond of them.” She now appreciated their color-coding and nodded to each set of parents, affirming their girls’ names: “Crystal, and Acadia.”
Of course he taught history. That’s how his class had ended up on a field trip to the Franklin Institute in downtown Philadelphia, known for its gigantic replica of a heart. Built for walking through to the swooshing rhythm of a pumping heart. Shoom-bada, shoom-bada, shoom-bada. Scott often took his students places — the African American Museum also in Philly, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and the Statue of Liberty in New York — to broaden their horizons. Earlier in the month Celia complained, “What’s the point? They’re spoiled and don’t have a clue.”
“You grow in the primordial soup where you’ve been dropped,” he’d said. “They can’t help it that they were ladled into bouillabaisse and we were plunked into condensed cream of mushroom.”
They’d laughed, and she’d said, “Just add water.” But it still grated. She would have happily traded her childhood of bus tokens for a baby blue Beemer at 16, like his students expected. But he was committed to teaching these future leaders, so they would be compassionate when they grew into their parents and ran the world. Even though he earned about as much as their nannies did. Perhaps less.
Celia had doubts but not Scott, and the students responded to his enthusiasm. Last May the middle school yearbook dedication read, “To Mr. Harper: You make history so not history. We love you!” A year ago.
It was possible that the girls’ parents were there to help. Charity. Not a very nice word, but she would take it. Underinsured was a nasty word, though one she’d gotten used to over the last week. Maybe she’d misjudged these parents. She could adjust to charity.
“Mrs. Harper?” Sterling asked, as if she hadn’t been listening.
“Fine,” Celia corrected. “I’m Ms. Fine.”
“Ms. Fine,” Sterling picked up smoothly, the slight arch of his shoulders indicating he’d known all along that she was the type who would not take her husband’s name. Not like Rippy. He cleared his throat. “We’ve come here out of our concern — ”
Celia tried not to sound too eager as she enthused, “And I do appreciate it, I do.” She focused on sitting up straight so that she could graciously receive their gift.
Over the years, Scott had shared that most of the moms and dads had gone to elite colleges, that they were equally quick and beyond competent. In her living room, however, the highly educated women appeared to be reassuring their husbands that this business was men’s work. She hoped that explained their silence; the women had barely spoken. Celia wanted that to be a sign that charity would be Charity. Big time.
Besides, why else would these parents — including elusive and valuable fathers — be in her house on a Monday morning? She’d give anything to tell Scott she had underestimated them.
Sterling leaned back and stretched out his legs. He nodded to Bobo, who returned the gesture. It occurred to Celia that this was a routine; something they did when flipping steaks next to one another at a posh picnic, casually nodding to inquire if the help needed to refresh their microbrews. Then, as now, negotiating who would speak next.
Sterling cleared his throat, acknowledging that his seniority had never been in question. “We’re here because we wanted you to know first. To hear it from us before it comes out in the paper.”
Scholarship fund? Damn it! flashed through Celia’s brain. It would be like them to think about the institution before the teachers.
Bobo, at last able to participate, said, “Are you all right, Ms. Fine? You look a little pale.”
“Peak-ed,” Kit corrected. “Like Acadia when she hasn’t been sleeping well. Ms. Fine is a little peak-ed.”
Rippy smiled, a dainty, embarrassed turn of the lips. Registering that Bobo’s wife had said something for her amusement again.
Sterling said, “We’re here on a serious matter, Ms. Fine. Surely you’ve ascertained as much.”
Serious! This was going in an entirely different direction. Celia stretched out her left arm in front of her, as if her fingers and one plain gold ring could stop their attack. Parents sometimes worried about possible dangers from male teachers in elementary or middle school — even as they complained that too many teachers were women — but they had nothing on the anxiety felt by these teachers’ spouses. Celia had never thought twice about Scott. Sure, he loved his kids. And he took them on several overnight trips a year. She shook her head. No. Not this. There were other male teachers at The School that worried her. And one young female teacher. She couldn’t believe that mere moments ago she said that he was fond of their girls. Shit.
As if she hadn’t a clue that they might be headed toward the most devastating accusation, she used the sweetest voice she could muster: “There’s an article about Scott’s dedication to the students at The School coming out in the newspaper?”
“About the trauma,” Sterling said, and repeated harshly, “trauma to our girls.”
“What? No. The yearbook dedication — they loved him. You’re mistaken,” Celia said with the minute part of her brain that was still functioning.
“Your apology. A-pol-o-gy,” Kit piped in, enunciating each syllable. She patted her foot on the worn carpet and turned to Bobo for confirmation. He gave his blessing by tapping one of his Italians agreeably onto a threadbare spot. Kit repeated, “We want an apology.”
“From me?” Confused, Celia cocked her head to the side. “That’s what you want?”
Bobo hauled himself up and walked right up to her chair, offering a close-up of cable stitches on orange cashmere. “Say it!” he boomed. “It’s important to us.”
“You admit it!” Bobo declared triumphantly. “He did it and now our girls have trauma.”
Celia rose. She stood silently for a moment, staring first at Bobo, then looking around him. “Please leave. How could you come into my home today and say these things?” She shivered. “You don’t know my husband.”
“Knew, knew your husband,” Rippy’s voice was so filled with ice that Celia associated it with Rippy telling a dog to get off the bed. Rippy kept going. “Why was he in the Franklin Institute when he’s a history teacher? Why did he take them there? If we’d had any idea what would happen we never would have let Crystal go.”
This logic confused Celia. What difference did the location make? Her defense came as questions instead of statements. “They updated the heart exhibit a couple of years ago? The old one was part of Philadelphia history? Sometimes history and science converge? It was a field trip?” In a faint effort to establish a barrier for herself, she added, “You must have signed permission slips.”
Kit gnawed at the point. “Of course you’re upset. Think how much more our girls were traumatized. Mr. Harper died on their field trip! They thought he was pretending to have a heart attack — they were standing right inside the heart — or they would have gotten help sooner. I know our Acadia would have. Our girls have trouble sleeping and need extra sessions with their therapists.”
A tiny, tinny laugh formed in the back of Celia’s brain. She pressed it down and opened her mouth, but her brain sent no words, only outrage and laughter twisted into one. She squeaked until her laugh overtook her squeaks and pushed forward, first as giggles, which morphed into big, gusty laughs. After a few moments she gasped for air, wiping tears from her cheeks. Her visitors regally held their shoulders back, chins tucked slightly down, hands folded quietly on their laps: Irish Setters frozen in point positions.
She tried to get her volume under control, but her voice came in a low roar. “You want an apology for Scott dying on the field trip! You want me to apologize to you!”
“For what our girls have suffered.” Kit nodded primly and patted the arm of her sofa, as though pleased that at last Celia understood.
By this time Celia was pacing the living room, stepping over parental toes and outstretched legs. “You think he died in the Franklin Institute, on a field trip with your daughters and his entire class, because he wanted to traumatize them?”
Bobo nodded, turned down his lips, and sighed. “We are sorry for your loss. Unfortunately, the result is the same. Trauma.”
“I can tell how sorry you are,” Celia said. “Let me rephrase. If my 45-year-old husband had known he was about to die, don’t you think he would have gone to the doctor? Or spent time with me, saying goodbye, instead of taking a bus with a bunch of seventh graders on a field trip?”
“You don’t have to get huffy,” Kit said. “We’re giving you a chance — ”
“ — to apologize,” Bobo said, finishing Kit’s sentence. “One from you and one from The School’s trustees. If you don’t, we’ll have to sue The School. Of course, we don’t want to, but if we have to, we will.”
“You’re going to sue The School?” Celia pointed at Bobo. “You’re on the board.” She considered the couples. “Rippy, too — you’re trustees.”
Sterling turned to Rippy. “I have a lunch meeting.” The seated parents angled their noses up and rose together, responding to a frequency tuned only to their ears.
“It’s a simple request,” Rippy said. “Surely your husband — who cared so much for our girls — wouldn’t have wanted them harmed.”
“Sit down!” Celia shouted. They obeyed, with raised eyebrows and disapproving lips. “Take your lawsuit and go home. Tell your daughters life is sometimes hard and death can be unexpected. My heart hurts so much that I can barely breathe; but reassure Crystal and Acadia that this was not their fault. No one could have saved him, not from a widowmaker heart attack. Tell them that from me — and from Mr. Harper.”
She shook her head, held up her right hand, stuck out her first three fingers and held her pinky down with her thumb. “Three final things. Get out of my house, get a life, and get down off your high horses.” She slowly released her pinky and glared at the couples as her tiny digit slid up to meet the others. She added forcefully, “And no apology. That makes four.”
“But you told us to stay!” Kit cried out. “Besides, we promised Acadia we wouldn’t leave without one. Right, Bobo?”
Celia’s laugh was sharp-pitched and edgy. She searched for the good that Scott had seen. The potential. Her laughter turned to a soft cackle. “We’re done now.”
The parents exited to the porch and swarmed around one another. As if she couldn’t hear, they said, “She must not know who we are,” but also, “The girls were right when they begged us not to do this.” Celia was thankful for the final, whispered, “Crystal will be so relieved,” and saw that Acadia’s parents agreed.
She stood in the open doorway and cleared her throat. They clustered in pairs and eyed the woman who refused to apologize. The slightest tilt of their heads expressed massive disappointment.
Loud enough for them to have heard if they’d been standing across the street and not in spitting distance, she said, “I am sorry that you and your daughters are distraught. Since you’re here, I’ll give another apology. I’m also sorry my husband ever worked for you. There. Is that what you came for?” The parents scurried along her cracked sidewalk, abuzz with offense, and drove off in four cars, each worth more than her house.
She closed the door. Leaned back into the cool wood. A chill rippled through her cotton shirt and along her spine. “Scott!” she said, like he was in the next room searching for reading glasses and a red pen. “Scott, honey? They want to sue The School!” She laughed some of the bitterness out.
Celia picked up the shirt she’d dropped earlier in the kitchen, dragged herself to the living room, and curled up on the sofa. She clasped the faded cloth. Nuzzled his collar. Clutched under the sleeves. Inhaled his familiar scent. Closed her eyes. Scotty.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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