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Stone Swans


ISSUE:  Winter 2001

The principal of Peter J. Jeffres High School finished locking the trophy cabinet and put the tiny key in his pocket. For a second he just stood there, light refracting off the bifocals he couldn’t get used to. The gold wavered like a candle flame, and the glass seemed convex, then concave. He felt blindsided. He walked down the familiar hall and crossed diagonally past the rows of student lockers toward his own office. His body seemed to slant, as if pushed. A blow. Or a high wind.

From his peripheral vision, Lawrence C. Burgess could see her standing there by the lockers with the boy. They had been in his office only 10 or 15 minutes ago. They had four, maybe five minutes left before the bell rang for the first class.

The boy and girl spent their minutes carefully, with oddly intimate gestures. He stood behind her when she slammed her locker door, touching the one book she still held. She turned, twirled her hair. He shifted his weight and widened his legs before her as if to straddle her.

Watching them, Larry Burgess counted on his fingers though he instinctively knew what the answer would be. Eight. She would be eight months pregnant at graduation. She would get up to give the valedictory, eight months pregnant and only she, the boy now beside her, and he, their principal, would know the lie. He imagined how their collusion might taint the air.

The high school principal, called “Pockets” by his students because he jiggled his change, was not, in general, given to moments like these. He thought of himself as a take-charge kind of guy, not moody, not introspective. But this new feeling he had. It had washed over him so suddenly; he felt he’d been caught—caught like a rabbit in a snare.

When the bell rang, he didn’t go inside his office but waited until the hall cleared and went to the side door to look out. There the mountain rose straight up in front of him, its seam of coal running about one-third of the way down, gleaming there like a huge black diamond in the morning sun. He’d hunted and trapped on mountains nearby with his own father, not an educated man, but a man who could carve a turkey call, rub the wood, and produce a female call so authentic a male turkey nearly flogged the two of them once, blowing up out of the brush right in their faces. He’d trapped there with his father too. He’d seen the black eyes of the caught rabbit, its blood-spattered paws twitching uselessly between the teeth of the iron trap. More than once he’d gone to check the traps with his father to find a fox chewing at his own leg to extricate himself. He remembered that fall, what year was it? He’d been in high school. That fall they kept the fox, his leg half chewed off, in the dog house all winter, collecting urine. A rusty cookie sheet was kept in the floor of the dog house and removed, full of strong smelling urine, every day. Bottled in a Mason jar, it sold for $10 a jar to every trapper they could find. Sprinkled around a trap, the urine lured every male fox in the area to its iron jaws.

“Pockets must be daydreaming.”

He overheard the whisper. A shuffle of feet. At one side door, and then at the other one, that was where they gathered. Truants, doubtless in search of a hall pass. Sometimes he’d give out a hall pass when he knew the excuses were bogus. He could sense that adolescent desperation so well that he’d find himself filling out a pass to give someone a few precious minutes of freedom as an act of mercy. But at first period? When he turned, he saw no one. He considered the other side door of the building. When this building had been the town hall, the east door had been the main entrance. His own office had been the tax collector’s office, and the police department had been housed in the gym, cardboard cubicles cutting up all the boundaries, the foul line.

Walking slowly to his office, he thought of his body as a lump he had to drag around, a hollow shell. When had he begun to think this way? After his 42nd birthday? His 45th? For so many years he felt firm and young himself, enjoying the company of teenagers when no one else did. He relished their futures, coming on them like a freight train their families weren’t prepared for. He nodded to the secretary, who was poised patiently in front of a mound of paperwork. They both knew she wouldn’t do it. She’d call her mother, eat with the English teacher in the cafeteria, and never get to it.

But the girl! Mary Etta. As early as the ninth grade, four years ago, he had started looking into scholarships for her to go away to school. In a rare, almost unconscious moment of candor, he’d told her: “You could leave this place, Mary Etta. Most of the time when kids try to get out, they get called hicks and people make fun of their accents so they come back. But with your mind and personality, you could do it. Leave, I mean. Become successful.”

By the time the bell rang for second period, he was back in his office staring at the phone. He had to make the call; he had to. Startled when it rang, he said “Hello” as if he were at home.

“What happened to, “Peter J. Jeffres High School, Lawrence Burgess”?”

He flinched. The superintendent. This was as close to a rebuke as he’d received in years. Larry Burgess was the kind of principal known for attracting and retaining uncommonly good teachers. He didn’t try to be too friendly with his faculty or too cold. He never confused the issues. There were borders he never crossed. So it seemed to him now that Superintendent Dempsy somehow already knew the depth and breadth of his error. Of what led to the situation with Mary Etta. He answered a few questions about the winter’s wear and tear on school buses and then hung up gratefully. He found himself staring out the window inside his office. It had been Dempsy himself who let Burgess know that pregnant girls no longer had to leave school and receive home-bound tutoring unless a doctor ordered it. New policy allowed the girls to remain in the building, though Dempsy insinuated that Burgess wasn’t to encourage it. Nor was he to discourage it. “There are all kinds of lawsuits these days,” he grumbled, “even in towns like ours.” Burgess couldn’t imagine anyone suing the schools in this town with its one law office which existed mostly to serve the coal companies. Their office was in the bottom level of the Black Diamond Hotel.

Burgess thought of the boy, Colin Pickett, the way he spread his legs in the hallway, his pelvis on an even angle with Mary Etta’s. Oh, he believed him. Believed that the baby wasn’t his.

“I couldn’t lie to you. You’re an elder,” Colin had said, referring to the fact that he and the principal shared a membership in the Presbyterian church. “I’m not the man who got her pregnant but I’m going to be the man to marry her.” Colin sat red faced in the principal’s office, and Mary Etta kept her head down during this admission. She didn’t raise her head at all until Burgess asked gently, “What about your college plans?” Then her face brightened, became apple-cheeked again, and in a rush of words assured him that she intended on community college, then transfer to a four-year school.

“I can find work anywhere. I’m a welder,” the Pickett boy said.

So he planned to follow her.

Did he realize it then? He asked himself. Or was it when the teacher’s face came suddenly before him. That teacher, the youngest teacher he’d ever hired—he was the father of Mary Etta’s baby. He knew it; somehow he knew it. Had something triggered a memory? Burgess had hired him, of course. That was his complicity in this. Burgess had brought in the foreigner himself. He’d found him at a conference on the Civil War. Scholars came with academic papers, only to find that a Civil War reenactment was staged all around the college grounds. The academic types were disgusted by the tents, the earnest bearded men staging the mock battle and they left. Larry Burgess signed up for a lecture on the locally produced gunshot, made right near the community college, and found the freckle-faced graduate of the University of Tennessee who was looking for a job.

Once, last September, he’d been suspicious of his newest acquisition. They were standing in the halls talking when classes let out and he’d watched Don Heyward, followed his heavy-lidded eyes down to a passing rump of a girl he, the principal, was old enough to father.

That slow stare, animal-like, its predatory nature intense. Heyward’s eyes stayed on the girl’s bottom too long, long enough for him to drink it in and enjoy it.

He told him: “You’re her teacher, not her father, not her friend, not her potential lover. There are borders around the role of a teacher. That’s a border you don’t cross.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not interested in a girl child. A baby woman. I couldn’t get interested in anybody I couldn’t talk to.”

Had he scoffed? Had Heyward scoffed?

Then Burgess had to consider how he’d thought about it himself. Sometimes, especially years ago, in early spring, he’d think about it often. But he’d never do it.

Yes, he’d been suspicious. There was the way Heyward set himself up in a trailer perched on a ridge, almost in a mockery of the way most of the coal town lived. New people usually set themselves up in double wides at the edge of town or traveled to teach from a larger place 30 or even 45 miles away. But he was aping them. He’d seen Don outside of school only once. He was standing in the doorway of the old trailer drinking a beer. Did he have a look of conquest about him? There was no question about the fact that he left suddenly, right after homecoming, didn’t even teach out his contract, made vague references to his parents’ health.

Pockets picked up the phone receiver and then hung it up. He laid his fingers on the mint green blotter, spread them out before him. For the second time that morning he counted on his fingers, didn’t trust his mind at all to do the simple figuring. Don left in November. It could have happened in October. The baby due in June. He counted twice. It explained a lot of things. Yet how could he accuse somebody of something like that? He got up abruptly and pulled her file. Was Mary Etta 18 then? Or was she a young senior who’d skipped a grade? Was she only 16? He had to think. What was the law in statutory rape?

When the bell rang to signal that third period had officially begun, the principal waited until the halls had cleared to the side opposite the one where he’d heard the feet shuffle. That window framed a view, not of any mountain, but of a landscape that looked more like the moon. There, out the window, the land looked like a giant had come along and eaten chunks out of it. There were holes like craters and, instead of a hilltop, small lumps in the earth like prehistoric footprints from a grade B horror movie. Brown weeds covered everything like a dirty blanket spread over the ground. Strip mining did it. That and the reclamation. The newspaper said the reclamation effort would duplicate and replace every species of flora and fauna. Local seeds from local plants would be obtained. “Reclamation Successful” the newspaper headline read. He saw a few tiny scrub pines among the brown weeds but that was it. No purple flowers from the summer-blooming thistle. No blue chicory. No yellow butter ‘n egg wild flowers in the spring. All the color had been sucked right out of the land, but people loved the strip mining. Without it, his mother was fond of saying, “We could of never got that K-Mart.” He did allow that strip mining was safer than the deep mines. His boys could get into it right after high school. Their girlfriends were always so relieved. They’d tell him all about their weddings, show off the rings his wife Helen called “fly-speck diamonds.” His girl students, not the boys, always confided in him. Baby women. Don’s word for them. The slow rumble started. Raised voices and doors opening, books slamming. The bell for fourth period. The hall filled with odors of shoe dust, chalk and the warm fabric smell of clothes and bodies. The rumble intensified.

“Hey, Mr. Burgess!”

“Hi.”

“Is the game this Friday home or away?”

“Home.”

He found her in the library, her head bent, copying from a book. The librarian was in the back, shelving books. She wouldn’t be sober much longer. There weren’t any other students in the room. He sat down close to Mary Etta.

“My girls have always confided in me,” he whispered. “In my office? For a few minutes?”

“You already know more than anybody. Even my grandmother. And I have to work tonight.” She looked at him in a pleading way.

He turned his body even closer to hers. The chair scraped loudly on the floor. “Your mother will be coming for graduation? And Mr. Heyward?”

“What?” Was there a red flush on her neck? “Mr. Heyward? You mean the teacher who left? I cleaned for him once or twice.”

He searched her face. So that was it. The school board paid her and her grandmother a little above minimum wage to clean the floors of the school at night.

She went back to her work, her pencil working furiously, then meekly: “Can Helen still use me Thursday afternoons? ‘Cause I really need the money.”

She smiled. She was pretty when she smiled, but she wasn’t the sexiest or the most attractive girl at Peter J. Jeffres High School. Did Heyward pick her out to be his baby woman? Was it because he could talk to her?

“You’re our only National Merit Scholar, you know,” he blurted.

“No, Mark Rosenfeld, 1972.”

“But he was a “brought here”,” Burgess said and immediately hated himself for using his mother’s vernacular and what went with it: that “come here’s” were better than “brought here’s”; that “born here’s” were best. His mother and all her friends, they were all born here’s and firmly believed that the same genetic material should circulate among the same population in perpetuity on into infinity, reverberating forever.

After the student and her principal found they could learn nothing more from each other’s eyes, the library chair scraped and the boy coming in jiggled his pocket change as the chief officer of the school left the room.

Back in his office, Burgess sent his mind all the way across the state, a good seven-hour drive, to Richmond. A state agency licensed teachers—would they have a record of where Don Heyward was teaching? No. But the teachers association, they would. Those people stayed on you like ticks. He thought of the miners union then—the way Virginia kept them out but Kentucky never could. His own Helen was from Kentucky and could testify to what the unions wrought.

John L. Lewis, “Eyebrows” people called him, was a hero for how long—20, 30 years? The time it took for people to realize that in bargaining with the coal companies he brought higher wages but fewer workers and more equipment. Equipment that was untried and unsafe. Helen was a “brought here”; he’d done it himself. The new home economics teacher. He hired her in his fifth year as principal of the high school he’d graduated from. He thought with longing of the way Helen would serve caviar on saltines to her classes each year. Then he considered the dreary years they tried and failed to have children themselves while all around them, every year, some girl, some baby woman, was getting pregnant at high school.

Once the shame of it was enough. As soon as the girl showed at all, she left school. Mary Etta’s mother, Mary, was one of the first to disappear, then return with a son and a long story. He had always wanted her. Everyone had. In those days he drove a blue Malibu, and he showed up drunk at Mary’s house. “Just ride with me until the odometer turns up four zeros, one thousand miles,” he asked. She did it, blowing smoke from her Lucky Strike cigarettes out the window. But that was in the 50’s, long before Burgess or Pockets, when he was just Larry and was the Peter J. Jeffres senior class president. As the 60’s ran into the 70’s, the girls seemed to flaunt their pregnancies, even, while he became the principal, in their cheerleading uniforms. In the 80’s, with an abortion clinic less than 50 miles away, he suspected that they quietly took care of business. With the 80’s too came the coal boom. Every male teacher who could wield a pick axe left teaching. Prices went up nearly every day. They bought their wives expensive jewelry, added on to their houses; one even built a pond with a fountain and brought in real swans for the front.

With no male teachers, he had no coaches. Helen learned basketball in a day. He dragged himself around the football field after school and before school board meetings. On the field, his own football memories surfaced and he remembered how he’d throw his body at the field dummies, angry beyond words that his father left steady work in the mines. He could still feel the thud in his chest when he hurled himself at the cotton-packed muslin form. His father had to do it, had to mine those black diamonds as an independent coal operator. It didn’t work. By the time Larry was in high school, his father relied on schemes like selling fox urine; he wouldn’t go back into the mines, and by the time he tried, the bust hit. The bust came back in the late 80’s, and the teacher who’d put swans in a pond tried to hire on again at the high school but Larry was Pockets then and still angry. No wonder he’d hired Heyward.

When the bell rang for fifth period, he realized he’d always felt protective toward Mary Etta, even when she was a little elementary student. Mary had joined her son in Detroit when he found work there and left Mary Etta with her mother. It was just as well. When Mary Etta was a baby and her paternity was in question, Mary pulled a trailer up behind her mother’s house, hooked up to her water and sewer, and tried to live there with her son and daughter, fighting constantly with her mother, who occasionally fired a rifle into the air when a certain pick-up truck was parked too long at Mary’s trailer. Before he’d stopped drinking, he would visit Mary too, even with Helen at home. But he never went any further than he had that day in his Malibu. They would just sit together; he’d drink his beer and watch the smoke curl around her lips and nostrils.

The teacher’s association in Virginia had Don Heyward in a “neighboring state,” they said, but they didn’t know which one. He’d find him. Burgess leaned out his doorway and told his secretary that for sixth period, he didn’t want to be disturbed. Before he closed the door to his office, he noticed a knot of students in the hall. As he looked down though his glasses, the knot seemed to unravel. When he looked over his glasses he saw a boy and girl standing in an insinuatingly sexual posture. The bell rang and he sat down carefully. His bifocals were bothering him and now his prostate. Oh, middle age. He wished his own adolescence hadn’t been so tortured. Now he knew exactly why it had been. The Bible’s warning against spilling seed on the soil. He felt he shouldn’t masturbate and didn’t. Wet sheets in the morning a persistent shame. The ache in his body almost the way it ached now.

He dialed. Number after number. Kentucky? he asked himself. Again he pictured Don Heyward standing in the door of his trailer, beer in hand, standing like, like what? Why did he remember that? Was there a shadow behind him. The hump of a figure? The way someone might lean over a vacuum cleaner? Had the housework suggested intimacy? In the narrow trailer Mary Etta would have asked for fresh sheets to make the bed. Then it would have seemed O.K. to both of them.

By the time he found Don Heyward in Tennessee, he’d settled on this scenario. But Don’s reaction to Mary Etta’s predicament was so banal it was maddening and Burgess had to hang up quickly before he lost his temper, said the wrong thing. Would he ever be coming back to Virginia? That was the only question he had asked Don. No, Don said, he didn’t think so.

Burgess pulled out of the high school parking lot after everyone else had left. To his right, the high school band marched soundlessly down the football field, swinging their instruments. On that same field, the band boosters would set up folding chairs from Anderson’s Funeral Home for graduation. Claude Hicks, the man who owned the U-Drive-Thru, famous for its foot-longs, came to every graduation and sat with his hat in his lap. Mary would sit in one of those chairs and watch for Mary Etta as the graduates trailed down the school steps into the field. The graduation gowns would be gathered elaborately at the shoulder so that the panels were full and wide, disguising Mary Etta’s pregnancy expertly, almost as if they, the gowns, had been designed for that purpose. Mary would be watching Mary Etta; so would Colin Pickett, and he felt then what they would feel, a clear simple emotion—pride.

He drove slowly, thinking about each family and each house he passed. Had Don, the foreigner, spilled his seed here, not on the soil, but inside where a family would continue with some part of him always carrying on, generation after generation. He passed the house where the former teacher had built the pond in front. The swans had died of course; their habitat lost, but the family had loved the look of them so much that they mounted stone swans on iron pilings set into the pond’s bed and the swans stood there still, never swaying in the wind, never moving with the water.

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