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February 19, 2024

Forestwood 3

By Ralph Bland

Part Three

I saw the new teacher and Willis together several times, and at first I thought it was only because he was doing his best to get her settled in to her new position at school so the load he'd been forced to carry would ease up some once she got into the swing of things. I knew how Willis was; if there was a boatload of work waiting to get done, he was the one looking around for a lifeboat so he could paddle away from it and let it either sink or float away without him.

But it didn't take long for me to figure out that the two of them being together, Willis and Deborah Arnholt, had something going on more than sheer professional courtesy on Willis' part. No, Deborah Arnholt was a very pretty woman, and when she came in her first day and got introduced at the faculty meeting that afternoon it wasn't hard to notice that every male member of the faculty perked up and sat up straighter in their chairs to take notice. She wasn't the kind of woman any male was going to avert his eyes from, and Willis was no exception. The difference between Willis and the other male members of the faculty was simple -- the other men stood by and watched and appreciated Deborah Arnholt's attractiveness, while Willis Carrington not only took her in with his eye but made certain the rest of him moved closer to her too. It didn't take a whole lot of vision to see there was more going on between the two of them than collaborating on classroom curriculums and sharing lesson plans.

Caroline knew something was going on too, although she didn't know exactly who the players were. For a few weeks I think she thought I was still somehow involved with Willis, and it showed in the way she started calling me again and, in her sly way, trying to worm out of me the confession that it was Willis and me spending time together as the reason he never called her anymore. I think she was almost more disturbed by the fact that I had edged her out in the game of romantic tug of war for the first time in our histories, for it was shocking to her that some man might actually prefer my company to hers. I think she was also bewildered at how blatantly I could be cheating on Jeff without him knowing it, and how Jeff in his hurt and retaliation for such a thing would naturally turn his attention toward her, Caroline, who Caroline assumed Jeff had always desired anyway, but that hadn't happened as she'd assumed it would, so she was confused about that too. Caroline was wanting to make all this into one of those Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice triangle/quartet sort of sexual trysts, but when she learned it wasn't me who was with Willis it threw her whole realm of thinking askew.

So what was it with Deborah Arnholt that would sway Willis' attention from Caroline and me? I could already place myself up in competition with her and see how I'd come up short in the physical department, for I wasn't anywhere close in the body category as Deborah or as pretty either. I wasn't plain and I had my attributes, but I wasn't exactly magazine quality in the eye of the beholders. So maybe along with being married that was enough to shift my standing right there, but I wondered if Willis could have the same conversations with Deborah Arnholt as he'd had with me before? I thought we'd had this natural affinity together for humor and talk, so it was somewhat deflating to think some woman might edge me out in that category too. A woman does like believing she's the best at something in her life, else it's hard getting up and motivated in the morning.

Caroline, though, could compete with Deborah Arnholt in the physical looks department. Like I've said before, there were very few women who could rival Caroline when it came to dressing to the nines and wearing a slinky dress and having all the moves and body language to go along with it. I looked at them together in my mind and the results were very close. Maybe Caroline was in the lead, but Deborah Arnholt was ten years younger, and that makes a lot of difference to a man. I thought of Jeff and how he'd always been enamored of Caroline, and I wondered if because Deborah Arnholt was younger and was technically a doll if Jeff would desert Caroline for her too, the same way it appeared Willis had done?

The bottom line, though, was that no matter whether Caroline or Deborah Arnholt was the one in the lead or not, I was the one now bringing up the rear with little chance of winning and fading chances of even placing to show. I guess if I was a regular type of person, losing out would have been disheartening to have to accept, but in a weird, strange sort of way I was halfway relieved at the way things were turning out. It looked like I wasn't going to have to go through with all the drama of being caught up in an affair with another man, with my marriage breaking up and scandal falling all around me, or with enduring all the stares and rumors and loss of reputation that was bound to come my way when the news came out and everything got dragged into the light for everyone to see. Maybe my son was not going to hate me for being a slut and maybe Jeff and I could slip back into our comfortable state of living and go on as if nothing had happened. I was pretty sure I could keep my mouth shut if he didn't know anything or bring it up and get back to the routine of going to work every day and coming home and being content to allow the rest of the world to engage in promiscuity and cheating and blasphemy and lies and live out their lives in a Guiding Light type of world. I could be a watcher again, calm and safe and secure in the fact that I'd learned to do better by mistakes that mercifully didn't manage to ruin me.

This was all well and good, and for a few days I started thinking I had it all together again, but then Willis sat down beside me at the weekly faculty meeting, and I knew the problem wasn't altogether solved just yet.

"For a little bit," he said, "I'd say that you've been avoiding me." He gave me a quick glance to make certain I'd heard him, then turned back around so that everyone in the room wouldn't notice how he was in the process of sucking me back in again. "Poor discarded me," he whispered. "I don't have anyone to tell my secrets to anymore."

"I thought you didn't have any secrets. I thought your life was an open book to everyone."

"I don't know where you got that idea. One little slipup from my inner sanctum and the jig would be up for me in a hot second."

I didn't say anything else, but just tried to give off the vibration that he was on my list and was getting the silent treatment as payment for such, but I couldn't help sitting there and tuning out everything the school principal was talking about and thinking instead of the times Willis and I had been together and whether there had been some form of magic intertwined in our coupling or if it had just been some animal act to satisfy the primitive urges within us both, or worse, had it only been a game that I went through the motions of to somehow make myself feel I was alive and truly a member of the human race. It was the sort of thing I could never stop myself from thinking about those days and nights, and I wondered if the answers or solutions would come to me anytime before I decided to lay down and die.

"Would you like to go have a drink somewhere?" he asked after the meeting was over. "We could go to the Boulevard for Happy Hour."

"I don't think so," I told him, surprising myself with my resolve. "We might run into somebody we know. They might get the wrong idea." I didn't really want to alienate him or be a bitch, but I couldn't help throwing in a little something extra. "Maybe Deborah's got her grade cards caught up by now," I told him. "Or you could call the bookstore and see if Caroline's free. There's a good possibility F. Scott Fitzgerald isn't in town for a signing today."

It was a somewhat tacky remark to say right out into the air, but I have to admit I enjoyed it.

I had ambivalent feelings about distancing myself from Willis. There was a part of me that still craved attention from him, like I was a schoolgirl again and the most important thing in the world was to have a boyfriend who fawned all over me, but there was also something to be said for having a calm, secure air about me once more, composed and serene rather than being a nervous wreck worrying when my entire world was fixing to fall apart. I have to admit that I did a lot of soul-searching for a while, trying to figure out exactly who I was and where I happened to stand on such issues as being married and motherhood and respectability or if I'd decided that being a wanton hussy was my particular cup of tea these days. Sometimes I had so many ideas and questions swirling around in my head it was hard to decide which path to follow. I knew what I should do -- that was easy, be a faithful wife and a good mother and go to work every day and do my job -- but I couldn't help but envision myself with my hair flying in the summer air motoring down the lanes in a sporty convertible with a handsome man at my beck and call doing all he could to make me happy.

But seeing how I was in my renewed stage of being a mature responsible adult, I took it upon myself to shy away from Willis Carrington's charms and beguilements, and I assumed the role of observer from that point forward, calm in my belief that I had averted some kind of disaster by pulling whatever plug there was on my relationship with Willis, and determined that I would sit back as a spectator and enjoy the rest of the show involving Willis and Caroline and Deborah Arnholt. Whatever the outcome might be, I was at least cool with the fact that I wasn't going to be the one involved in any of life's explosions and misfortunes and emotional debris.

Willis was no chump. He knew when the chips were low and the cards were going against him, so by my somewhat-distant and tepid reception toward him he knew the jig was probably up with him and me. Maybe he didn't regard it in exactly those harsh terms, but he was in the smallest way aware that it wasn't going to be worth his time or effort to keep coming at me and expecting something in return, like sex and a quick romp in the bed between colleagues. He was smart enough to know -- and I hated him for it -- that I was the lesser of the prizes for him to vie over, that between Caroline and Deborah and their cheekbones and hair and voluptuous bodies there was really no room for me in the inn, that it was better to let the smallest fish of this particular pond go and keep casting his line for the big ones that were still within range of his baited hook.

The weeks passed quickly -- as they always do after returning from spring break -- and it seemed like suddenly the end of the school year was within hailing distance and there were numerous projects and reports that had to get done before final exams started and the year came to a close. It was during this time that scuttlebutt started becoming more rampant whenever teachers would meet in the lounge or go out for drinks on the Friday afternoons after school dismissed. Like everybody else, I was working my fingers to the bone, coming in early and working through my free period and lunch and staying after school and getting home late and eating whatever Jeff had thrown into the oven to keep the lot of us from starving. One thing I can say about Jeff that puts him way ahead of most of the schoolteacher husbands in this world is he had an understanding of the deadlines I was constantly being given and the amount of work I had to do and hoops I had to jump through each year just to get to the finish line. He didn't get disgusted or angry or anything. He just worked all day and stood in line to get checked out with the groceries and then came home and cooked and had it ready when I got home. Maybe it wasn't that good, but because I was exhausted and it was one less thing for me to have to do, it always tasted delicious.

And he would do the dishes too.

Post-Easter was a busy time for Caroline too. The summer releases were coming out from the major publishers, and those with a large budget were dispatching their prize authors out on publicity reading tours. For about three weeks straight Caroline hosted reading and signing events in her store every night, and it wasn't until the last Saturday night of the month that she was actually free to go to dinner with Jeff and me. I was almost curious to see if she might show up with Willis, but it turned out to be another one of her male authors she'd hosted earlier that afternoon, a young man from Florida who fancied himself as another Hemingway and who'd written a book about the lives and loves of a dashing stock car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He was about a dozen years younger than Caroline, but he looked like he could have been her son. He even made me think of my own son. They could have been best pals riding their skateboards together.

We were in the middle of our entrée listening to Caroline's youthful admirer talk about how he'd researched the stock car sporting agendas and how he'd likened it to big game hunting on the male danger scale, and in the middle of some personal eye-rolling I happened to see Willis and Deborah Arnholt walk in the door and look around for a table. I couldn't act like I didn't see them, because Willis raised his hand and waved and smiled, and I smiled and waved back the same way, like we were both overjoyed to see each other. I didn't know Deborah all that well yet, but by the way she was smiling I knew she was brimming over just seeing me too.

Why Willis would choose to lead Deborah by the arm over to our table to exchange pleasantries I'll never know, but here they came, approaching like a summer storm with the promise of tornados, and at this point all any of us seated could do was sit tight and hold on until the threat was passed. I had no idea how long that would be or if I was going to live through it.

"Thought we'd bop over and say hello," Willis said. "I don't hardly recognize you without your nose stuck in reports and paperwork," he said to me. "Nice to know you've still got a life outside of the penitentiary." He looked over to Jeff and smiled and said hello. When he finally got around to Caroline I wondered if she was going to launch a forkful of cod at him from her plate, but she just smiled at him and introduced him to Rudy, who was her author/escort, or Rudolph as she called him, which didn't sound all that debonair like she intended but to me reminded me of Santa's lead reindeer, which was really out of context here in the middle of spring and no snow anywhere to be seen.

"Good to meet you," Willis said. "This is Deborah Arnholt," he said mostly to Caroline and partly to Rudy and Jeff. "She teaches with Liz and me."

I figured it was time for me to interject myself into the conversation for the sake of civility, but I couldn't find anything meaningful to say, so we all just stood and sat and looked at each other while the Eagles intoned over the ceiling speakers how everyone was going to find out everything in the long run.

At last Willis and Deborah left us and found a table on the other side of the room, and I ran my mouth talking about where we were thinking of going on vacation this summer, which we'd yet to discuss, Jeff and I, up until this moment, and Rudy talked about his next book, which he couldn't decide if it was going to be a western like Lonesome Dove or a horror novel like The Shining, and Jeff knocked back a few additional Budweisers and Caroline moved her fish and chips from one side of the plate to the other and drank her frozen daquiri and looked at Rudy like she wondered how anybody could be that young and dumb and boring all at the same time. It wasn't exactly the most memorable night of merry-making we'd ever spent, and after a half hour Caroline was gathering up her purse and her phone and was herding Rudy out the door in a hurry. Generally, on these nights of dining with her authors, Caroline always insisted on driving, and tonight was no exception. I think she liked to be in control of the situation when it came to her gallery of writers; she wanted to be free to make the choice whether she took them home or deposited them at the airport or hotel or wherever it was they were bound to next. I could tell by her gait that what was on her mind right now was getting out the door and doing whatever she needed to do to get rid of Rudy for tonight and most assuredly forever. Knowing her like I did, old Rudy didn't have a chance of scoring tonight and would be lucky if his book ever made it to the shelves of Caroline's store.
I was having a hard enough time of it myself, although it didn't really have anything to do with my heartfelt feelings for Willis Carrington and how I'd loved and lost him and was supposed to pine about it forever. No, my big problem was being here at the Boulevard with Jeff at the table and Willis looming on the other side of the room. I kept thinking Jeff was going to say something about what he thought may have gone on between me and Willis, and maybe get up from the table and walk over to where Willis and Deborah were sitting and challenge him to a duel or something. I guess I was just uncomfortable sitting there thinking Jeff may have already done or soon would put two and two together, and then I would be in a position where I would have to explain my actions, which was going to be tough, since I was convinced I could live to be a hundred and ten and still not be capable of explaining what I'd been up to and what I was trying to prove all this time since Willis Carrington had walked onto the scene.

Willis and Deborah got up and left before we did, and for a while Jeff and I sat and talked about maybe going on vacation and what was going on at his store and my school, and finally we got up to go. I felt this huge block of relief getting off my back, and I thought I was at least safe for one more night from the consequences of my sins. He even told me to drive home because he'd had an extra beer or two, and he played with the radio and looked out the window all the way down Forestwood Drive.

It was two in the morning when the phone rang in the bedroom. Most times everyone called me on my cell, and all we really kept the landline around for anymore was out of old habit and the fax machine. At two a.m. I wondered who it could be. The police? A wrong number? I let it ring four times before I finally reached over and answered it.

An obviously imbibed Caroline immediately began railing and screeching on the other end.

"I've been so thoroughly pissed all night. I knew if I called your cell you'd have it charging and silenced, and I couldn't wait until tomorrow to tell you exactly how I feel."

She stopped for a minute, probably to drain the contents of whatever alcoholic mixture she had in her glass, then started anew.

"Could you believe that son of a bitch brought that woman in with him tonight to parade around in front of me? I guess he thought he'd get my goat and ruin my evening by doing so."

I didn't say anything about how her goat was not only gotten but was running full-speed down Forestwood Drive by now, bleating and kicking up its heels at the idea that Caroline's Saturday night had gone completely to shit, but just kept my mouth shut and looked at the dark walls of the bedroom while she went on.

"He doesn't have any hold on me, you know. It's not my fault we're in the position we're in. I don't know what he's used to in the company of the women he's known in his life so far, but this one isn't going to stand for somebody catting around on her. There's not a man in the world who's going to treat me that way, because when you're with me, brother, you're going to be with me all the way, because I don't play second fiddle to anybody. I can get any man I want, and Willis Carrington knows it too. He just thinks too highly of himself. He thinks any female he sees is immediately ready to hop in the sack with him and there won't be any rules or regulations going on as long as he sees fit to continue. Well, that may have worked for him all the way up to now, but he hasn't dealt with anyone like me before. This girl here doesn't take shit like that off any goddamn man!"

I don't know if she was meaning to imply that I was the one in the family who took shit off men, which I really didn't, but I tried not to let the implication raise my hackles any and ruin what good sleep I might be able to get once I got Caroline calmed down and off the phone. I decided to go into my uh-huh mode, and just respond with a new uh-huh until Caroline's battery finally ran down.

"You know I've never let any man rub my nose in the dirt, don't you?"


"And I'm not going to start doing it now, especially for the likes of one Willis Carrington."


"He might think it was funny to show off his new girlfriend to me in front of everybody, but I've got news for him. He'll be sorry for showing up at the Boulevard tonight with me there."


"I'll show the bastard. I'll teach him a trick or two."


She finally ran out of steam and hung up.

I don't exactly know what went on between Caroline and Willis and Deborah for sure, but I do know there was a lot of talk at school about the two senior English teachers and what was happening between them both at school and off campus. Teachers are like that, you know. They like to act like they're really progressive and liberal and don't for the most part stick their noses in others' business, but that's not exactly true to form. Teachers can be as nosy as anybody. For one thing, they're smarter and more observant than most people. And if you think they can't broadcast rumors and let secrets slip out for entertainment, well, you're nuts. Also, after getting criticized and ordered around at every turn and held accountable for things beyond their control, there's a good preponderance of the educational world that has a little mean streak and doesn't mind giving a little push to somebody individually or in a group and let their heads be on the chopping block for a while, sort of a let's see how you like it for a change kind of attitude.

What I mean is there were some tall tales circulating around school about Deborah and Willis, some of which I didn't know whether to believe or not. Some of the rumors seemed so far-fetched and otherworldly, like they should be happening on the set of a soap opera or in some tawdry city where sin and lust run rampant on an everyday basis, but not here in my school and my neighborhood and all that entailed life in our boring, sleepy existences. Maybe if I tuned in to HBO or Netflix I might see such tales developing, but it was hard to imagine them being true and real in my proximity. I suppose that aura of high-wire romantic intrigue is what had sucked me in in the first place. I had grown tired of my inconsequential life and wanted Mount Vesuvius to explode in my backyard for just a little, to spice up my life, to maybe put an edge on going about my chores every single day, perhaps to provide some relief to the dreariness of living out my everyday humdrum chapter in a life with not much plot or action. Maybe it was that way for all of us.

Caroline was the exception, though. Caroline actually did have a life of fireworks and secrets and whispered proclamations in the dark. Caroline didn't have to rely on the passions of others to instill hot blood into her veins. No, she had always provided such on her own, through the coupling and seductions and the writers she used and discarded on a monthly basis. This red-blooded life was old hat to her. She didn't need to dwell on Willis Carrington and Deborah Arnholt to prod her imagination, for she already had enough ammunition on her own to stoke her fires. Living vicariously was never a term that applied to Caroline. That was for everybody else who didn't have a life.

I wasn't present for the initial festivities, but I got informed of the altercation that went on out in the teachers' lot, with Deborah and some woman screaming at each other and almost coming to blows. What happened was Willis and Deborah came out to his car after school and a woman was there waiting for them, a woman in a red convertible who jumped out of her car and came up to the window of Willis' car waving a pistol and spouting obscenities and threats like nobody's business. The woman finally drove off after making a big scene, and nobody really knew who she was or what it had been about, but nobody had to tell me more. I knew it was Caroline in her Lexus, and I knew it had to do with Willis being with Deborah and not with her.

It went on from there. There was something every day or two, screaming and tires screeching and a funeral wreath delivered to both Deborah and Willis on a Monday afternoon at recess, a delivery man walking down the hall through the front doors carrying the black wreaths with RIP emblazoned on them, first going to Deborah's room and then Willis', with students laughing and teachers looking on wondering what it was all about and what was going to happen next. I was having the same questions occur in my head too. I wasn't too sure how far Caroline was going to take this. I wondered if there was a stopping point.

What I didn't know -- and what no one knew at the time -- was the fact that Deborah Arnholt had more than one man in her life. Willis wasn't her only paramour, just like Caroline had not been Willis' only squeeze going. There was a fellow who didn't take kindly to the idea that Deborah Arnholt was not exclusively his anymore and was seeing someone else, and he reacted to the news in the same manner as Caroline had before. He made a lot of phone calls and showed up at Deborah's door, pounding on it and telling her she needed to come to her senses or bad things were going to happen. He made it a point to insist that he wasn't going to be the guy who got left out in the lurch for somebody else. He didn't know who the dude was Deborah had been lately courting, but he was assured in the knowledge that whoever the fellow was was not only not worthy of her but was likely half the man he was, and if push came to shove he was going to prove it to her.

So it was this mystery guy with his threats and Deborah with her dilemma of choosing between a real he-man or a debonair and sporty Willis with his shiny Porsche, and there was Willis juggling Deborah at school and perhaps dodging but possibly sparking Caroline at the same time, and there was Caroline with her anger and her violent sexual nature that told her she had to be the Queen Bee of the hive no matter what, and they were all out there pushing and shoving and threatening and cursing trying to resolve who was going to end up with who, while there I was, on the outside watching and imagining how it was all going to go down, halfway glad I was a prim, married schoolteacher devoid of raging rapid episodic fits of mental and physical outpourings, and at the same time green and envious of these people with their starring roles in life's main feature while I did nothing but watch and wonder how I could possibly handle events like this if I actually had a real place among the living patrons of the planet.

The talk went on and the gossip continued daily, until I almost became accustomed to hearing tales of monumental revenge and shocking behavior on all the participants' fronts. I knew for a little I could have been out there in the grand play with the major actors, but I grew a little more thankful every day that I was a coward when it came to going for the gusto, and that an evening without dire circumstance was more than welcome for me. The longer it all went on the more I was convinced that I was never meant to be a member of this sort of ensemble.

There were two days of examinations left in the school year. The prom had already happened and yearbooks had been issued, and now all that was left was grading exams and issuing cards, followed by the last day of school and commencement exercises.

On the Sunday night after exams had been taken the baccalaureate service was held at a Baptist church down the road from the school. All the teachers were required to be there, so I let Jeff stay at home with his hockey game and met up with the other teachers at the ceremony. Being a sophomore English teacher, there wasn't anything for me to do but show up and take my seat on the first three rows with everyone else. I could see Willis on one pew across from the main section and Deborah on down the row with some of the other teachers, and it struck me as a little strange for the two of them to be separated like that after all that had gone on the past few weeks. I surmised that perhaps they were attempting to tamp down and quell some of the controversy on this important night.

We were on our feet singing some standardized hymn when I saw this man come down the aisle and slip in beside Deborah, who looked up at him with hardly a welcoming countenance. I could tell I wasn't the only one taking this in; it seemed like about a hundred sets of eyes were glancing over at the mystery man and Deborah Arnholt. I could hear the questions being asked in every member of the faculty's minds -- was this one of the players who'd been in the middle of all the ruckuses happening at the school lately? Was something fixing to happen we all needed to keep our eyes open for?

At least that's what was going on in my head. I wondered if any minute this man was going to grab Deborah by the arm and drag her from the auditorium, if maybe he was going to draw a pistol from his pocket and aim it down the row at Willis Carrington, sitting on the other side away from Deborah as if they had no bearing on each other. Was there getting ready to transpire one of those tragic Shakespearian moments of high drama and drastic results that you see on the nightly network news so often these days and don't allow yourself to think how such acts might possibly occur within your own world, the place you call home?

I held my breath and heard or saw nothing of the ceremony going on before me. I waited for the sound of a gunshot, a cry for help, a snarl of vengeful wrath, the stampede of feet as everyone tried to escape from this place of horror. I tried to listen for the beating of my heart, how if I heard it, the sound would mean I was still alive, but the quiet was all there was in my ears. There was no music, no speeches, no inspirational moments, even though it was all going on before me up on the podium.

Then it was over and the students filed out, everyone was dismissed and talk ensued. I looked over at Deborah and she was walking down the aisle with the man who'd arrived late and sat beside her. I looked over for Willis, but he was nowhere to be seen. Outside, I looked over to the far end of the lot where I'd seen the Porsche when I'd first arrived, but it was gone already.

Deborah and the mystery man had a skirmish in the lot when they got outside the church. They were shouting practically from the minute they walked out the doors of the church, and there was no way everyone in attendance couldn't hear what was going on. She called him a bastard and he called her a whore, and when she swung her fist at him he caught her wrist and squeezed it until she stopped trying to fight. I thought for a minute someone was going to have to step in and break it up, but everyone just stood there in a kind of shocked trance and watched. It was over fast. Deborah broke away and ran off to her car while the man stood and watched her, then walked away toward a white pickup truck and got inside. The windows were tinted where you couldn't see inside, and the motor made a loud growl as he drove off. He wasn't going slow, but it didn't look like he was going to follow Deborah anywhere, since she was still in her car sitting in some of the departing traffic.

This was going to be gist for more talk at school among the faculty and parents and students. It was a good thing school was ending in the next few days.

I don't know why I thought I could put some kind of due date on what was going to culminate in all these swirling stories going on around me. It wasn't like the end of the school year could be construed as Act Five in the grand play and every plot end and story action was going to reach a climax when it arrived and then get neatly tied up in a bow. The actors weren't going to come back onstage and bow and take in applause for the manner in which they'd conducted themselves. There was never any kind of guarantee any of us -- both the spectators and the players -- were going to go home totally satisfied.

And it didn't take long for the progression to swell.

The first crack in the mirror came when Caroline arrived at one of her bookstore reading programs high on some kind of barbiturate with a stomach full of gin and tonic. It wasn't so much that she was ten minutes late for the function but for the fact she'd smacked into somebody's car out in the lot, got mad that the person's car happened to be in her way and backed up and slammed into it again. There was cool jazz playing over the store's speaker to create ambiance, but the sound of metal crunching could be heard over it. It was said she made quite a mess out of both automobiles. Then, if that wasn't enough for one night, Caroline came in and promptly fired the first employee she saw, for some reason no one could tell other than the assumption that Caroline was pissed about her wreck and mad about having to work on a Thursday night and really upset about whatever it was that had triggered her run of misfortune and bad luck.

Of course, the problem stemmed from Willis being with Deborah and not with her, and she hadn't looked further than her own plight to see that Willis was having a problem with Deborah because some man had decided he had some form of claim on Deborah and Willis didn't, and Deborah was afraid of the man and had come to be distrustful of Willis because she thought he was using her for a while before he returned to Caroline, and they all had a hankering to get rid of each other, to subtract everyone around them who was messing up their life goals, and I was left wondering who was going to do away with who and if I was going to be included in the upcoming carnage, and was, by the way, Jeff involved in this passion play too, and was he going to be one of the doing away with people or one who got done away with himself?

If I thought about it too much I could really start getting concerned about my own personal welfare. I could get swept away by the rapids too.

That same night the mystery man at the baccalaureate came looking for Willis. I don't know how he learned where Willis' apartment complex was, but he cruised the parking lot until he figured he was somewhere nearby. He didn't know which door belonged to Willis, but he did know the car, and he meted out his displeasure with Willis on the Porsche. He took a crowbar and smashed some dents into the doors and along the hood, then took out a handgun and shot out all the windows. The alarms were going off and people were waking up, but the man, later identified as a Michael Cox and a former boyfriend of Deborah Arnholt, stood calmly in the lot and fired at the Porsche until the gun's chamber was empty. He walked over to his truck and drove away. He wasn't in any kind of hurry.

Willis never came out of his apartment until the police came. He answered questions as best he could, but he didn't know who the man was who'd emptied his ammo supply into the Porsche. Probably he could have said why the man did what he did, but he said he didn't know that either. In the morning a wrecker came and towed the Porsche away, and Willis stayed inside the rest of the day.

I, of course, had heard about it by the time Monday arrived. Caroline had called Sunday night and told me all about it -- how she found out so many details I don't know -- but I couldn't stop myself from wandering down to Willis' room after exams were over to see how he was. I'd thought I was all done with him and had come to my senses and escaped back into my safe life with my house and husband and son and teacher's pay and benefits, but there was still a little something left in my heart for Willis. He may have been a bullfrog hopping from pad to pad, but it was impossible to hate him completely. Bullfrogs will be bullfrogs, I guess is the way I was thinking of it.

"I heard you had some trouble last night."

"A little bit. My car was the one that took the brunt of it."

"Is it ruined?"

"They'll fix it. It'll never be the same but that's how it goes. I'll sell it and get something else."

"Well, I'm sorry it happened. It's none of my business, but I'm still sad for you. At least it was the car and not you."

"A lot of people would have preferred the latter." He stood up from his desk and walked over to look out the window. "The guy was an old boyfriend of Deborah's. I think she'd been stringing him along while she was going out with me. I'm wondering if she's the one who told him who I was and where I lived."

"Deborah would do that?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Especially if she was afraid of him, or if she was pissed off at me. She did find out about Caroline and me, you know."

"I thought you and Caroline had called it quits."

"Not totally. We were still seeing each other from time to time."

"So maybe you were stringing Deborah along too."

"Maybe. You might think of it that way. It's not like I was married to either of them or anything. I didn't sign any loyalty oaths that I can remember."

I'd come down here to offer some sympathy for the way things had turned out and maybe be nice and offer him a ride home, but suddenly I wanted to not be there in his room any longer. I didn't want to look at him and think of the big carousel that had gone around for a time now, painted horses going in circles and up and down with Caroline and Deborah and the stranger with the pistol and Willis grabbing for some prized ring or hopping about to new mounts while the calliope played, and I thought of how I'd been on that ride for a few spins too, and how dizzy I'd become because I wasn't one of them, I didn't belong, and how I'd had to get off at last, not totally because I wanted to, but because there was something in the way they rode their horses and reached out for rings they didn't want to wear or possess that frightened me and made me uneasy and caused me to wish to be back on solid earth once more. I didn't want to be on this part of the midway anymore. I wanted to take a seat and eat my cotton candy in peace, to be far enough away that I could hear the music and see the ride moving around and everyone going up and down on the horses they rode, but I didn't want to be close enough to see the expressions on their faces or hear the songs they sang or the words they had to say.

I had one more day of giving exams, a night of graduation, a few days getting grade cards out and reports turned in.

I wanted to be through so I could go home for the summer.

I somehow knew Deborah Arnholt and Willis wouldn't be back at school next year. In a day or so I would have seen the last of them. I wouldn't see the pistol-packing stranger in his pickup truck anymore; he'd be moving on for sure too. I'd see my son and I'd see Jeff. I'd see myself in the mirror, and my image and I would have to spend some time together coming to terms.

And I'd see Caroline. There was no getting around that. Life was a carousel where people went up and down and around, and it was a door where each day they came and went, but my sister Caroline was a part of the carnival show that continued to come around on a ride that just went on forever.

Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-01-03
Image(s) are public domain.
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