On the night of the first and most important PTA meeting of that year, 2005, the sky cracked open — according to Principal Maggie Batten’s watch — at 6:42 p.m. She’d been testing the sound system when, suddenly, there seemed to be a thousand hands slapping the sides of the building.
“Mr. Norbeck?” Maggie called.
Dale Norbeck, the school’s only full-time maintenance man who’d been wiping off seats in the back of the auditorium, looked up the long walkway toward her. “Do you mind putting some containers by the entrance for parents’ umbrellas? There’s a rumor that it may storm tonight.”
The faculty, some of whom had already taken their seats in the bleachers that were set up along the wall, laughed nervously.
They were all tense about meeting parents, but she knew that this was an especially nerve-racking occasion for her three rookies. They were Mr. Don Wiggs, a drop-dead handsome young man the color of ivory, just minted from Penn State; Ms. Diane McCauley, pretty, blond, slender, and to the manor born, determined to make a difference in the world; and Paul Hernandez, a successful businessman who had decided, at age 50, that teaching was really what he wanted to do.
Maggie’s smile lingered on those three and she hoped that they caught the message: She would not let them fail. In fact, she thought a bit ruefully, she could not let them fail.
Maggie wasn’t clinically obsessive-compulsive, her therapist had long ago comforted. She was, however, definitely Type A and, her counselor had emphasized, would have to learn to live around problems such a temperament creates.
She still often found herself welded to the “track” — the track which, on many days, led her to wash her hands 30 times, forced her to sort the canned food in her cupboard by alphabetical order, or compelled her to turn around mornings and head back home to check, yet again, that she had indeed turned off the coffeepot.
Maggie knew that she would be on the track until the last parent left that night. She had found herself rolling onto the rails about two hours before when Norbeck had stood at her office door.
“You wanted to see me?” he had asked.
“Yes. What’s going on with those three desks I saw outside Room 11?”
“They’re broken,” Norbeck had said, as he adjusted the tool pouch on his waist. A shock of gray hair, ignoring the absent-minded prodding of Norbeck’s hand, had clung stubbornly to the man’s forehead.
He was 56, only eight years older than Maggie was, but he certainly had lived a harder life. Then again, Maggie had taken care of herself. She exercised and ate right. She moved like the ballerina-wannabe she had once been. With neatly coifed red hair and large, intelligent, blue eyes, she had to admit that she was still attractive. (Not that Maggie could be bothered with emotional entanglements at this stage of her life.) Norbeck, on the other hand, looked as if he could be her uncle.
“And?” Maggie had asked about the desks.
“I’m going to fix them.”
“Now,” Norbeck had said. “Should take me fifteen minutes at most.”
“And then you’ll put them back into the room.”
“Super,” Maggie said. “I want everything to be perfect for the seven o’clock start. This isn’t the night to leave old furniture out in the hallway, Mr. Norbeck.”
“Oh, I know that, Mrs. Batten,” the maintenance man had responded as he started to turn away.
Maggie had stopped him.
“Yes, Mrs. Batten?”
Maggie had sighed, but continued. “Most of the parents are going to come into the school from that side entrance that leads from the parking lot,” Maggie had pointed out. “They’ll head down that stairwell and right into the auditorium. Is there time to wax the floor on the landing at the bottom of those steps?”
“I probably could,” Norbeck had said.
He had recited a list. “Wanted to test microphones, check trash cans, shine water fountains…”
Maggie had held up her hand. “Reorganize your priorities, Mr. Norbeck,” she had said. “I really want that floor waxed.”
Now, as Norbeck placed the umbrella containers down and rain pounded even harder against the roof, Maggie stepped back to make sure that the window shades along the wall had been drawn to the same level.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Batten?”
Maggie swung about. Justin Price, Grade 5 and a tenor in the Glee Club, looked up at her. Justin’s glasses were, as always, askew and his shirt had crept over his belt at the sides.
“Yes,” Maggie agreed.
“I left my schoolbag in the parking lot.”
“You hung it on the fence by the entrance,” Maggie corrected. Through some logic decipherable only to boys at Carter Elementary, hanging your schoolbag near the front gate had somehow become a mark of manhood.
“Yes,” Justin murmured.
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.”
“Yes, I did Mrs. Batten.”
“And I’ve told you boys not to do that, correct?”
“Yes.” He was fidgeting now. Good.
“Come on, Justin, speak up. I hope you plan on singing louder than that.”
“You did tell us not to hang schoolbags on the fence, Mrs. Batten.”
“Look at me, please. And you’re telling me you chose to disobey.”
“Go get it, before your books get soaked through,” Maggie said after just enough of a pause. “Ask Mr. Norbeck to walk you. And Justin?”
“Yes, Mrs. Batten?”
“See me tomorrow first thing.”
As she watched the boy hurry over to Norbeck, Maggie shook her head. Little miscues like what just happened could throw off the rhythm of even the best-laid agendas. She decided, as her gaze followed Norbeck and the boy out the door, that she’d have to be extra vigilant tonight.
“Shouldn’t be difficult,” she thought.
Maggie had grown up vigilant. One of her prominent childhood memories was of her father, sitting at the kitchen table in his underwear, drinking Ballentine and smoking Camels, growling at her as she fretted over some school project. “Get a life, goddamnit,” he’d spit.
Even though she had packed her things the day after high school graduation, Maggie had never really left. Someone had had to watch out for Mom. When her mother died, she had still felt — against all reason — responsible for her father as well. Her two brothers would have let him rot but she didn’t have that in her.
For years, she had paid some of his bills, bought him groceries (it would have been foolish to have had sent him money). When it came time, she had set him up in an assisted-living center. When it came time again, she’d placed him in a nursing home, which was supposed to mean the end of cigarettes and beer, but somehow didn’t.
He’d turned 90 this year, Maggie thought with annoyance, and was basking in the attentions of young attendants whom had decided to make him their pet because they considered him such a character.
Maggie tried her best to understand. She conceded that, perhaps, a shriveled old coot prone to telling passersby to “fug demselves” might indeed seem somewhat refreshing in a lobby full of old women rattling prayer books. (As much as she admired the exquisite brevity of this phrase, it was not her favorite expression of her father’s. That would have to go to the charming “fug de fuggin’ fugs.”)
Meanwhile, Maggie went home nights to a precisely decorated house that her exhusband, “sick of this bullshit,” had long ago deserted and her daughter, Amanda, could visit only rarely because she lived on the opposite coast.
Now, as the teachers settled into their seats beside the Glee and Forensics clubs, Maggie leaned against the foot of the stage and surveyed the scene. Everything was as it should be.
That’s when Maggie heard the first scream of the evening.
“My God!” some of the teachers said. “What was that?”
Mr. Alan Snow, the Glee Club’s moderator, was so offended by the noise that he dropped his music books.
It was not a piercing sound, more like a groan — a cry one might confront in some cheesy movie about the undead. What shook Maggie was that it came from the landing outside the door. It had better not be Justin Price, she thought angrily as she rushed over to the commotion. More shouts erupted and a lot of thumping was going on inside the stairwell landing.
When Maggie swung the door open, she was horrified to see three parents sprawled on the ground.
“Goodness!” she cried. “Are you OK?”
The Daleys, spry young progenitors of a first grader, seemed more embarrassed than injured and were kind of feeling their way up the wall into a standing position.
Maggie couldn’t tell about Mrs. Hallihan, however. This grandmother, who was raising the child that had resulted from her daughter’s stormy relationship with a felon, was lying very still in the middle of the landing. Maggie almost hadn’t recognized her, and not only because Mrs. Hallihan, at that moment, resembled a model for a chalk silhouette at a crime scene.
She had dressed well for the evening. The now-crumpled clothes had been carefully selected: a red blouse and a modest blue skirt. Or rather, it had hung modestly when Mrs. Hallihan had slipped it on earlier. Now, in her fallen state, the skirt had twisted up to the white of her thighs that winked through a rip in her panty hose.
Maggie wanted to cry “Oh, my God!” but glanced behind her just in time to see Ms. McCauley and Mr. Wiggs looking in.
She told herself: “Stay calm!”
Her decision on what had happened and what to do about it lacked just enough snap to prevent further mayhem because, just then, Justin Price hopped down the steps two at a time and, upon landing, became a human pinball. He hit the floor as if it were a waterslide, twisting his arms and waving his legs, trying to steer a course around objects.
The boy skidded right into Mrs. Hallihan, pushing her to the side and into a wall, head first. “Thump!” Justin stopped only when he hit Maggie’s legs. She swayed, but did not topple.
“Sorry, Mrs. Batten,” Justin managed to say, as he rescued his glasses, which had been swinging (one-armed, like a chimp) from his right ear.
Mrs. Hallihan groaned again. All this, Maggie suddenly noticed, seemed to be happening in a sauna. The landing felt very muggy and Maggie could sense, almost as if they were ghostly visitors, beads of sweat forming on her brow.
She called up the stairwell. “Mr. Norbeck?”
“We have a …” she glanced about — Mr. Wiggs, Ms. McCauley, and some of the other teachers had by now inched across the threshold — “situation here.”
“The floor’s like a damn skating rink!” called out Mr. Daley, who was helping his wife over to the coaxing hands of the teachers.
Maggie said, “I think that the rain on the new wax is what’s causing the problem, Mr. Norbeck.”
She could hear him talking to somebody. Other parents were arriving and Norbeck was asking them to wait in the upstairs hallway until the way could be made safe.
One minute and twenty-two seconds later, Norbeck walked across a mat he’d unrolled up to Mrs. Hallihan and helped the woman to her feet.
“I’m so embarrassed,” the grandmother said, as she took Maggie’s hand and was passed off to another educator. A slight cut accented a rising blue mound on her forehead.
“Thank God for Mr. Norbeck!” she concluded.
This represented a tip of the hat from one town fixture to another. Mrs. Hallihan had worked as a waitress at the Blue Fountain Diner forever. Everybody knew her.
Norbeck, too, Maggie had to admit, was revered. Longevity had accomplished what the man’s affectless personality could never do: It had made him a beloved figure at Carter. Many parents spoke of how, when they were at the school, they’d run messages to “Mr. N.” to fix this hissing radiator or that leaning basketball net.
Norbeck had remained, long after the radiators had been discarded for heating ducts and the old basketball backboard replaced by a contraption that could be hydraulically drawn up into the ceiling.
Why anyone would settle on “maintenance man” as a station in life had been a mystery to Maggie when she first took over the school not much more than a year ago. There had been vague references to Norbeck’s stint in Vietnam and a failed marriage that only served to make Maggie irritable in his presence. Everybody had problems, after all. Ruin was such a cliché. Success, on the other hand — now success was interesting. Wasn’t that the school’s mission? To turn out as many successful human beings as possible?
“Over there,” Maggie now directed.
Some of the teachers sat Mrs. Hallihan on one of the bleacher seats and Mrs. Jones — the school nurse who was usually never around for PTA meetings but for some reason was on this night — checked her out. Maggie was hovering over the victim when the old woman shooed her.
“Go, please, you got a meeting to do,” Mrs. Hallihan said. “I’ve caused enough trouble.” Then she seemed to look right into Maggie, the intensity of the old woman’s blue-eyed gaze freezing the principal for a moment. “Don’t worry,” said Mrs. Hallihan. “I won’t sue. Don’t believe in it.”
Maggie hadn’t realized that she’d been weighing the school’s liability, but that must have been the case, for when Mrs. Hallihan said this, the principal gushed: “I am so sorry this happened. It’s all my fault.”
“Oh, bull,” Mrs. Hallihan said, waving her off. “It was a goddamn accident.”
So mats were laid along the path leading to the auditorium and orange cones placed at strategic spots to warn parents to watch their steps.
Through it all Maggie, who in times of stress seemed able to leave her body and watch herself perform, remained calm. This was her duty. Within minutes, the faculty had broken into groups where the recent “Hallihan horror” was being finely parsed.
Sidling up to one of these, Maggie slipped in a few conversational cues that encouraged Mr. Hernandez, an excellent raconteur, to launch into a story about some of the bizarre things that had happened to him at business meetings. (Once, while giving a motivational speech in Japan, he’d been somewhat shocked to look up from his notes and find half the audience asleep. He learned later that dozing during lectures is common practice in that country and should not be taken personally.)
It worked. In a few minutes Maggie was able to ease herself away from a conversation in which Mr. Wiggs and Ms. McCauley were trying their best not to laugh hysterically.
The PTA meeting started at 7:13 p.m.
“I apologize for the delay,” Maggie began, looking at the rows of dripping parents and guardians and speaking above the sound of the still-hard-falling rain “but not half as much as I apologize for the wet floor out there on the side landing. On leaving, I encourage all of you to use one of the other exits. They’re not as direct, but certainly safer tonight.”
A scattering of perplexed expressions faced her. Maggie cleared her throat and added. “For those of you who came late, the lesson of this night is that rain and waxed floors do not mix.”
Laughter. Maggie glanced nervously at Mrs. Hallihan, seated in the front row. The woman smiled. Thank God.
“I don’t mean to make light of a safety issue,” Maggie continued quickly. “We’re very lucky no one got hurt…” she shuffled some papers and added, “badly. And as much as I’d love to play the blame game, Mr. Norbeck had nothing to do with this. I’m the culprit. I had asked him to wax the floors and, great worker that he is, it was done.”
More laughter then, somewhat to Maggie’s surprise, sustained applause for the maintenance man. Was this a rebuke? Schools were like villages. Everybody knew that Maggie wanted to get rid of Norbeck.
At the end of last year she had smelled alcohol on the man’s breath. When she’d confronted him, he admitted that he’d “had a couple” for lunch because his son had been visiting from Florida. This was a blatant violation of district policy. If she could detect beer on this man’s breath, so could impressionable children. Maggie wanted to fire Dale Norbeck, but had been dissuaded by the president of the school board and she, uncharacteristically, had backed down.
“Choose your battles,” was one of her mantras.
Maggie lacked the track record to make Norbeck an issue because, in truth, she was the one on probation — not the maintenance man. She had tucked a written reprimand into Norbeck’s file.
“Next time, he’s fired,” Maggie had promised the board president.
“There won’t be a next time,” he’d responded and seemed genuinely taken aback by the fierceness of Maggie’s protest.
A new school year and people were still discovering just how tough Maggie Batten could be. She would later wonder if it had been adrenaline that caused her to see and hear everything with such clarity the night of the PTA meeting. She’d entered a zone where the rest of the world, caught in its clock-enslaved rhythms, seemed at a terrible disadvantage to her.
Just like that she decided to cut her prepared remarks in half. Anything she’d planned to say could be put in the school newsletter. Time to get back on track.
The pumping of blood through her veins seemed to level off only after she’d introduced the first speaker of the Forensics Club — eighth-grader Lori Dern, who read a short-short story. (Children had been encouraged to find their own material.)
“This is the club’s inaugural year,” Maggie had pointed out in the introduction. “I think that the children and their moderator, Ms. McCauley, have done a wonderful job. I hope you agree.”
Lori began. “My little brother, Arney, is such a pain.” Forensics teaches children to speak clearly and with emotion, and Lori had certainly mastered the skills.
Too bad that Maggie, from that point on, would not be able to — as she’d so often put it to students — give the speaker her undivided attention. She was thinking about too many things as she sat in her chair to the side of the bleachers and gazed over the rows of faces in the auditorium.
She glanced at Mrs. Hallihan. A square patch had been taped to her forehead. Her shoulders had slumped, her knees touched, making her legs protrude like drumsticks. The fall had definitely taken something out of her. She’d promised she wouldn’t sue, but how could Maggie be sure? What would the school board say? This was a hell of a way to get the year started.
Maggie thought: “Stay calm. Stay calm.”
She couldn’t stop sweating. In fact, she hadn’t sweated so much since that time this past summer when she had searched for the stash of beer that she knew Norbeck had hidden somewhere in the cluttered, converted boiler room in the basement that served as his office.
This had been right before he was to leave for vacation. Maggie had asked him to drop off his keys.
“I’ll need to make copies while you’re away,” she had added.
“Mrs. Harper never had copies,” Norbeck had protested.
“Well, she should have had them,” Maggie had replied. “The principal is supposed to have access to every room in the building.”
Her predecessor had had an unusual approach to the job, overseeing dismissals that resembled rock concerts, field trips that spurred fiscal crises, and lunch menus guaranteed to produce a new generation of heart patients.
It was a miracle Carter Elementary had never been sued, Maggie thought, throwing yet another glance at Mrs. Hallihan.
Maggie had, of course, inspected every inch of Carter her first week on the job. However, visiting Norbeck’s “office,” with the maintenance man in tow, and walking through the darkened corridor next to the generators by herself were two different things.
“Does he hide bodies down here?” she had thought. “He needs some more light bulbs.”
Just then the lights on the stage began to dim as Lori Dern entered the home stretch. Maggie had been following the gist of the tale. Arney was a pain. Arney would spy on his sister whenever she brought boyfriends over. Arney would interrupt at the dinner table. Arney was dead.
Maggie felt air leave the hall for an instant, the sound of the rain rushing in. Now she listened very closely. She hadn’t misheard. Not only was 11-year-old Arney dead, but he’d died from cancer. And he was now being buried. Maggie glanced at the audience. Even in the dim lights, she could see parental smiles harden.
Maggie prayed: “Please end. Please end. Please end.”
It did end with Lori promising, “I will always miss my little brother.”
As Maggie rushed over to the microphone, she was cursing herself for not reviewing what speeches would be made by the students. That was way too much responsibility to put in the hands of a first-year teacher.
She took a deep breath to smooth over any quiver in her voice and introduced the next Forensics Club speaker: Danny Coats. The fifth-grader, hair slicked back and sporting an oversized tie that dangled to his crotch, pursed his lips as he made his way to the podium like a tin soldier. Maggie adjusted the microphone and patted him on the back.
“Good luck,” she whispered. “Relax.”
“Baseball is the sport of kings,” Danny began in an overloud voice before Maggie had even taken her seat again.
She thought: “Baseball. Sounds safe. The kid’s going to say how much he loves baseball.”
That was the plan, anyway. Unfortunately, Danny still had some way to go in terms of delivery, which was fine by Maggie because he rushed through his speech.
“Get me out of here,” she thought.
That was not exactly the attitude she had taken that summer when creeping about Norbeck’s workspace. The maintenance man’s office was really a desk set adrift in a sea of old projectors, broken blackboards, and mop buckets with wheels missing. A small refrigerator in the corner contained a quart of light cream and some leftover Chinese food.
“He wouldn’t be dumb enough to put beer in here, anyway,” Maggie had decided as she slammed the door.
Something else had piqued her curiosity. Right beside Norbeck’s desk, an old metal filing cabinet had squatted like a dog who’d done something wrong. This piece of institutional hardware had seen some duty. Even in the shadows, Maggie had noticed that the sides were rusting, and one edge was crumpled like an accordion. There were even holes in it. Did he keep some living thing in there?
Maggie had had to try nine keys before she could open it. She’d peered inside to find … nothing. No folders, no tools, no beer.
“Exhibit 1,” Maggie had decided. Why keep an empty filing cabinet within arms’ reach? Norbeck had probably ditched all the incriminating evidence before he’d gone.
“I’ll check it again,” Maggie had vowed.
However, when she did so, she’d always found the same thing — an empty filing cabinet. That only served to convince Maggie that Norbeck was very good at covering his trail.
Among the shadows of a mediocre man’s working life, an image of her father had flashed in Maggie’s mind. The darling of the over-90 set, buying beer from orderlies and launching vocabulary words in the direction of the Bible study group.
Yes, Maggie had decided, Norbeck would slip up again and she’d be ready.
“Ready and waiting,” as Danny Coats now said. His speech had been bumpy. The words should have lingered over the joys of the summer game: the beauty of hitting a pitched ball, the camaraderie of being on a team. Instead they had blazed by like a double down the line.
Danny — or the narrator — stepped to the plate. As the ball arrived, he knew that this was his big moment. He swung and belted a line drive into the gap. He rounded first, then second, then third. The narrator, representing the go-ahead run in the bottom of the ninth, was waved around. He was going to try for an inside-the-park home run, one of the most exciting plays in sports. His life would be changed forever. He would no longer be a nonentity, a loser. The other kids would respect and even come to love this underdog who’d appeared from nowhere to help the school win the state championship. If he scored.
“Disney should make a movie of this,” Maggie thought.
It was going to be close. The ball and Danny converged on a single point: the catcher. The narrator knew what he had to do. He’d have to smash into the opposing player and somehow knock the ball from his grip.
Here’s the play.
“That’s when I felt something snap in my spine,” Danny announced. “Now, I’m a quadriplegic. I’ll not only never play baseball again but never walk again as well.”
This time there was a loud gasp and distraught murmuring.
Maggie could hear Mrs. Hallihan say “Holy shit!” She was slumped in her seat even more, beaten back by the tragedies that had just rushed her.
“Another cheerful little ditty,” Mr. Daley said.
Maggie had already gotten up and was heading toward Danny Coats, whose big eyes seemed ready to hemorrhage as they searched the audience for approval that was not forthcoming.
Before she could make it to the microphone, someone began clapping. Maggie found the source. It was Norbeck, standing in the back and flapping his hands together like a seal.
There was the slightest gap between Norbeck’s initiative and then, thankfully, thunderous applause. After all, the parents seemed to have suddenly remembered, this was a kid and they clapped all the harder from contrition.
“Thanks so much, Danny Coats,” Maggie said, when the noise died. “As I mentioned, this is the first year the Forensics Club has been in existence. The children placed seventh in a tournament held at Seaver Community College about two weeks ago. Seventh out of 25 teams I believe. I think they read mostly humorous pieces that day, am I correct Ms. McCauley?” Maggie was correct. She hoped the audience got the message: The kids were not usually so morbid.
One more event. Just one. Then the parents would be free to wander the school, visit their children’s rooms, look at artwork hanging in the hallways, shake hands with teachers. There would be an end to this night.
“Mr. Snow has been moderator of the Glee Club for… how long has it been, Mr. Snow?” Maggie asked.
Mr. Snow — a heavyset man whose creative impulses Maggie appreciated while, at the same time, also reigned in — flashed seven fingers.
“Seven years,” Maggie continued. “And they work very hard. And…” this next part with emphasis, “they have something very cheery to present tonight.” No more death or injury, promise. “Halloween is not too far off, parents. So, without more delay, here’s the Glee Club.”
This might be, Maggie decided as she again scooted back to her seat, the event that rescues the meeting. What’s not to like? Beautiful young voices singing songs about Maggie’s favorite time of year. Taped music began as children filed onto the stage.
First came “Candy Man.” Of course. Then “Monster Mash.” Why not? Then, the finale — a song Snow himself had written. Maggie forgot the name, but remembered that the delightful refrain — which had been echoing through the corridors after school for a month — ended with the chant “Candy! Candy! Candy!” climbing the scale.
The parents, by this point, were enjoying themselves. No forced smiles. Some had even joined in the singing. They were now swaying to this unknown, but highly infectious, tune.
The first verse had been belted out by the bigger kids. At the beginning of the second verse, the younger children began skipping onto the stage carrying baskets.
This made the hairs on Maggie’s neck stand. She knew, she just knew, something wasn’t right. Snow hadn’t told her a damn thing about baskets. What was in them?
At a musical interlude right before the beginning of the refrain, all the kids dipped into the baskets.
“Candy,” Maggie thought, relaxing a bit. Of course.
On the first “Candy” all the kids drew their arms back. On the second “Candy!” half of them flung the pieces into the audience. Maggie heard two groans and a yelp. On the third “Candy” came the second barrage. They were not throwing marshmallows into the crowd. In fact, one hard object whizzed right by her nose and cracked against the wall. Maggie glanced up in time to find Justin Price smiling wickedly at her from the corner of the stage.
She looked at the audience in horror. One man clutched his eye. A woman, cupping her mouth, sprang from her seat, and ran toward the back. “Yo!” someone yelled. Mrs. Hallihan had been hit. She’d been knocked out of her seat and someone was leaning over her.
Maggie jumped to her feet.
“Stop this song!” she yelled, but what with the music, singing, rain, and cries of the wounded, she couldn’t be heard.
The music was revving toward a crescendo, as the children dipped back into the baskets, this time coming up with two fistfuls of ammunition.
Maggie began running toward the stage but she knew that she’d never get there in time. Just then the music died and the lights blinked.
“Stop!” Maggie yelled in the sudden silence and the children froze.
“Thanks so much, Glee Club,” Maggie called as she ran toward center stage. She felt as if she’d just sprinted 100 yards. She thought “compose yourself” and somehow managed to turn back the tide of hyperventilation. “That concludes the Glee Club’s presentation,” she breathed into the microphone.
From behind her came the sound of children dejectedly dropping their candy back into the baskets like an army handing over its guns. “Now, please,” Maggie continue, “enjoy yourselves as you tour our school.”
Parents jumped out of their seats as if someone had just scored a touchdown. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Mr. Daley said.
Maggie picked up other snippets of passing conversation: “Thank God, I didn’t get hit,” “I got nailed in the arm, then couldn’t find the candy to boot. What a rip-off,” “Can I hear just one more story about somebody dying?” “I think I’ll go home now and eat some razor blades.”
A few mothers came over, shook her hand, and said how impressed they had been by the presentations. Maggie couldn’t wait to be rid of them so she could, once again, wallow for few seconds in the honest wisecracks of the other attendees.
The grumbling abated only when the crowd had to part to make room for the two men who carried Mrs. Hallihan back to the bleachers and the ministrations of Nurse Jones.
Maggie turned. Ms. McCauley looked at her with the eyes of a 5-year-old.
“Were the presentations OK?”
Maggie patted the girl’s shoulder. “Ms. McCauley,” she said, “I think your children did a fine job. You are truly a dedicated and inspiring teacher.”
The girl blushed and hurried up to her classroom. There would be time enough during the week to point out everything that had gone wrong.
Maggie was like that the rest of the night: Churchill at Dunkirk. She complimented the faculty, joked with some of the fathers, and even walked Mrs. Hallihan out to the ambulance.
“But I don’t need to go to the hospital!” the woman complained. The bump on her forehead had risen to the extent where it was pushing the patch free at the corners. Her right eye was closed and she was limping.
“Nurse Jones wants to make sure you’re OK,” Maggie explained once more.
“I know I’m OK,” said Mrs. Hallihan who, Maggie noticed, was slurring her words and clutching her purse to her as if it were a Teddy bear. “Think this is the only time I’ve ever been roughed up?”
Strange the memories that occasionally came to Maggie. Later, when the school was empty, she stood in her office just staring at her doctoral degree.
Her father again.
It had been the summer before her junior year of high school. Maggie had just gotten her working papers and had started her first job as a waitress. She had come home after a Saturday-afternoon shift and had been chattering away with her mother about the personalities she’d encountered.
She had become aware that her father had moved into the room, sitting at the kitchen table. He had been regarding her (talk about unwelcomed attention), and Maggie could feel her muscles tense. From the corner of her eye she looked for a beer bottle or whiskey glass but could find neither. This hadn’t made her feel any less nervous. She had smelled alcohol. He’d probably left his drink in the other room. She had been tempted to wrap up the conversation and escape upstairs. However, escaping would have meant leaving her mother alone to take the brunt of whatever was coming.
Finally, he had coughed — hacked really.
“You OK, Dad?” Maggie had asked.
“I’m fine. I don’t know about you.”
“What do you mean?”
She had turned to him, willing yet again to take whatever he dished out. This had only infuriated him, as she had known it would. He had actually sneered at her and she felt as if she’d been hit in the stomach.
“The working girl,” her father had finally spat. “What a joke. You couldn’t pour piss from a boot.”
She had thought then, not for the first time, that she could kill him. This must have registered in her eyes. Her father’s glowering gaze had softened into a smirk of recognition. There was something of him being carried into the future. He had sauntered back into the living room to his TV, cigarettes, and beer.
“Thanks, Dad, you asshole,” Maggie had said once he was out of earshot, as much to relieve her mother’s tension as her own.
It hadn’t worked. Her mother had swooned against the sink and cupped her face in her hands.
“Come on, Mom,” Maggie had said, rubbing her back. “Don’t let that bastard get to you again.”
“He’s a sick man, Maggie,” her mother had whispered. “You’ve got to always remember that. It’s not him. It’s the sickness.”
“Yeah, Mom. I’ll remember.”
Tonight’s PTA meeting, Maggie resolved, had been a temporary reversal. She would bounce back. She always did. He would never be able to keep her down. Even in defeat she had foiled his ghost. She had officiated over an evening of unmitigated disaster and had somehow maintained her sangfroid in front of her staff. She would not break.
There was a sound behind her — a cough — and Maggie swung about.
“Mr. Norbeck! You startled me.”
He was again standing in her office doorway, exactly has he had done some five hours before. Except now he wore a windbreaker and a baseball cap that framed his hollow-eyed stare.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I was just getting ready to lock up.”
“I thought you’d gone home by now.”
“I’m always the last to leave, Mrs. Batten.”
“Not tonight. I’ll lock up, thanks.”
When he didn’t exit right away, she forced herself not to say, “You may go now.” That would have sounded too much like someone dismissing a servant, wouldn’t it? Still what was he waiting for?
“Ma’am?” Norbeck took off his cap and Maggie noticed, not for the first time, that his hand shook.
“Yes Mr. Norbeck?”
“It wasn’t your fault tonight, Mrs. Batten.”
Maggie sighed. Perfect, just perfect. This was a fitting, poetic end to a horrible evening. Being pitied by Norbeck when, really — it suddenly occurred to her — it had been his fault. If he had kept the damn floor clean all along Maggie would never have had to ask him to wax it at the last minute. She realized: He had wanted her to fail. He was trying to get rid of her before she could get rid of him.
“No, no, no,” she amended. Don’t give him too much credit. There was no way that Norbeck was smart enough to have actually planned this debacle. Still the chance was great that she’d underestimated him. Well, she was not without her own skills.
“I want to thank you for coming to the rescue,” Maggie said.
“Ma’am?” Norbeck said, replacing his hat with a yank.
“Pulling the plug on the tape machine and turning out the stage lights during the Glee Club’s presentation.”
“I didn’t want anybody else to get hurt,” Norbeck said.
Maggie bet that some parents already knew that he’d come to her aid. He had made sure of that. He was always so quiet. Sneak.
“What a night,” Maggie said, shaking her head.
“I’ll be going now.”
“You know what I could use, Mr. Norbeck?” Maggie said, and he stopped again, just as he had earlier that night when she’d ordered him to wax the floor.
“Ma’am?” He turned his gaze slowly back to her.
“I could use a drink, Mr. Norbeck. Whiskey. A beer, even.”
“I can’t help you with that, ma’am. Keeping alcohol on school grounds is strictly against rules. If I gave you a drink you could fire me.”
Yes, Maggie decided, he was certainly smarter than he looked.
“I’m curious, Mr. Norbeck,” she said. “What do you keep in that filing cabinet near your desk?”
He didn’t hesitate. “That cabinet’s empty ma’am. I certainly don’t keep liquor there.”
“That doesn’t make sense, Mr. Norbeck, keeping an empty filing cabinet.”
“It’s a strange story, Mrs. Batten. A boring story.”
They were facing each other full again. The battle was once more joined.
“After tonight, Mr. Norbeck, boring is good,” she said. “Why do we have an empty filing cabinet taking up space in our school?”
“It’s a memento, in a way, Mrs. Batten. It was the filing cabinet that I used in Vietnam.”
“I know that you’re a veteran.”
“That’s all there is to it, Mrs. Batten.” His features seemed to become more pronounced, sharper. She could almost imagine him 35 years earlier, staring out into the darkness of a jungle, waiting for the enemy.
“That doesn’t tell me anything, Mr. Norbeck,” Maggie said.
“I thought I was a pretty good officer, ma’am. I was very organized. I took that cabinet with me wherever we set up headquarters. It was filled with my men’s records. Maps. Orders. Copies of letters I’d have to write to mothers, wives, sweethearts. Everything in alphabetical order. I ran my operation the way you run this school, Mrs. Batten.”
Maggie let herself smile.
“Hopefully, you’re not thinking about tonight,” she said.
“I am thinking specifically about tonight, ma’am. No matter how much you plan, sometimes things go wrong. That’s what I learned over there.”
Maggie actually asked — something she would never have done if she weren’t so tired and angry. Later, she would regret showing her impatience with Norbeck whom, after all, was exposing his pain.
At the time, however, she’d been struck by the image of the maintenance man imparting a life lesson to the principal. Perhaps in other circumstances she could tolerate this. Not tonight, however. Norbeck’s explanation veered too close to maudlin and she had had enough of that for one evening.
“Can’t you keep that filing cabinet at home?” she asked.
“I could if you ordered me to,” he said. “With your permission, though, I’d like to keep it here.”
“Having it where I work makes me feel comfortable, Mrs. Batten. You see I made a lot of decisions over there. Young men died. When I was discharged I asked if I could take the cabinet and they let me. Whenever I’m feeling keyed up about something — usually something silly — I reach over and open that cabinet and I look right into that nice empty space. No more decisions. Never again. I feel better.”
As he’d been talking, Maggie’s impatience lifted, revealing — to her surprise — the hard surface of hatred, a foundation that presented itself as a challenge. She shivered. How unlike her. How unprofessional. She’d have to chip away at this in the coming months. Dale Norbeck, whom she would probably never like, certainly didn’t deserve her antipathy.
“I’ll lock up, Mr. Norbeck,” Maggie said quietly. When he hesitated, she added: “If that filing cabinet helps you do your job then I guess there’s no reason why it shouldn’t stay right where it is.”
“Good night, ma’am,” he said, and sauntered off.
When his footsteps had stopped echoing down the corridor, Maggie was tempted to walk over to her own filing cabinet, pull out the reprimand she’d written for Norbeck last year, and tear it into pieces.
She could actually see herself doing this. She would tuck the debris into a pouch in her purse and then, later that night, burn it. She would watch the flames flicker in her favorite coffee mug and all the while wonder if the aftertaste of that miniature holocaust would linger over her morning coffee.
“Wouldn’t that be different?” Maggie thought with a thrill, after she gathered her things and took one last look around. “Wouldn’t that be so unlike me?”