IT’S NOT THAT I ENJOY PLAYING GOD. I just don’t have any other choice. It’s also the reason that my place has holes punched in all the walls. That’s me, the part of me that I can’t let anyone see. All those holes? Vanity. Vanity entwined in a desperate bid for survival.
I thought about having my knuckles tattooed once. You’ve seen them, the words love and hate in black on a fighter’s hands. He grins at you with sweat running down his face, and he holds up his fist, and just before he knocks you out, he says, Love makes the world go round. Then he punches, and it’s lights out for you.
The problem I ran into was my vanity. You see, I only have five knuckles, four if I want it to really work. The thumb hardly counts, but I was willing to play loose and free if I could use my vanity to punch a few holes in my life. It’s like everything else about me. Round pegs in square holes, only my life is more like forcing the moon to fit into Lake Huron. First, you can’t get the giant sucker out of the sky, and second, no matter how hard you pound it, it simply won’t fit into the stupid lake.
You see, vanity has six letters. I never tried disgust. I can count, after all. I might rail, and my walls might suffer, but I did finish college. Not willingly, but I did finish. Tooth and nail, fighting every scholarship my ole alma mater stuffed down my throat every fall. I left my dorm room with a few holes, too. I just tried to hide them in places they couldn’t be easily found.
You see, I really am a god.
You laugh. I can hear you even through the pages of this book. That’s my god-thing, what makes me what I am, and even now, it’s twisting me inside, clawing at the back of my eyeballs, making me want to change my words to describe myself the way you want me to be.
I can do that, you know, put a golden halo around my head, say pretty things to all the kids who live on my block, and knock your sniffles back to the other side of Monday just like Jesus did in the Bible. When you call me, crying, and you tell me it’s been raining for four days, and you’ll wet your pants if you see another raindrop hit your window, and then the sun breaks through the clouds, I don’t expect you to make the connection, but yeah, that’s me. I’m your god connection, your hot line to the Big Man.
Except in this case, I am the big man. Man, that sucks. And I’m not even out of bed this morning. What am I saying? I never made it to bed last night. I’m sprawled on the sofa, still in my jeans, with my shirt for a pillow. I think I left the TV on, too, because CNN is telling me all kinds of interesting things I don’t want to know at six in the morning.
Oh, my head hurts! What in the world did I do last night? Sometimes it’s best not to even care.
I FORGOT TO TELL YOU MY NAME. That’s because I suck so badly at being a god. Well, I suck at everything else, too. Just ask my mom. I don’t call, I moved half a continent away, and I have no real, burning desire to return home. Shouldn’t I be a little more like Jesus, like when things were at the worst for him, his only thought was for his mother? If I were hanging on that cross, I’d be screaming out to anyone I knew to get me down, because those nails in my hands stupid well hurt like fire.
But then that’s why I suck so badly at being a god. The god-things don’t come naturally to me. Or, if I want to be honest with myself, and with you out there in the real world, I fight the god-things; I tear at them with eyes closed, punching and kicking, just trying to get through the day being a normal person, one who scratches his crotch when he gets out of bed in the morning, spits on the sidewalk when he thinks no one is looking, and sometimes forgets to brush his teeth and doesn’t really care.
I have to fight, you see. There’s nothing fun about being a god. Nothing fun at all. Forget those movies where God comes down and says, “Hey, you, Dude! I plan to take a vacation and let you play God for a few hours. Have fun, Dude!” That guy? He plays with the moon so his girlfriend will jump his bones, but it doesn’t work like that. The god-thing doesn’t do anything for the person who has all the power. I can’t, like, get rich and drive fancy cars just by snapping my fingers. In that movie, the god-guy gets stuck in traffic, and he snaps his fingers, and all the traffic just scoots out of the way, and he has a clear shot to work. Can I tell you all the times I’ve been stuck in traffic or picked the slow line at the drive-thru? Nah, I can’t, because I lost count about ten years ago.
What have I found out in all this? Lots of stuff, but the biggie is that being a god is not what you think it is. That’s why I’m writing all this down. I want someone to understand just what it’s like. And I’m not asking for sympathy. I understand how the world works. If you’ve got any measure of success—and I do hold a job with a regular paycheck—no one wants to hear about your problems. People want you to feel sorry for them. It’s the game we play, the way we get through the days, weeks, and years until the Grim Reaper finally lets us free from this mess we call life. I get it, but I just want the chance to say, The Game Sucks. See my capitals? I wrote it that way intentionally. I want you to know, The Game Sucks, and if you’re on the outside, you can’t tell. You think I’m all halo, little kids, and sunshine. And you know, I am, because I can’t do anything else, and that sucks so badly I want to punch a hole through my morning and make it back into night again.
Right. I already did that, and more than once. All I have to do is look around my house. It’s also the reason I don’t invite people inside for burgers. We stay on the patio, and I never, never let them use the inside toilet.
But, since I’m a god and all, and I have to do the halo thing, I had a toilet installed in the garage, with a door directly onto the back garden. It’s even air conditioned and heated, with a tub-shower combination, and double sinks. The women tell me it’s really nice, and they wish their boyfriends would do something that considerate for them to keep party guests from dirtying their houses while traipsing in and out to the bathroom.
I didn’t do it for that, but whatever. I mean, and here I’m getting frustrated, because even to me what they say sounds reasonable. I’m not stupid, not if I believe five years of full scholarships at NYU, but as angry as I get at the world, I listen to my friends, and I actually agree with them. It is nice to have an outside bath opening straight to the party, where guests can go in and out at will, where no one has to ask where the john is. I even put a sign on the wall that people can flip over. One side says vacant, and the other, occupied. How cool is that? So, yeah, I can look at what I’ve done, and I can see the god-thing working.
That’s not why I did it, though. The bath is there because of all the holes in my walls. I didn’t exactly look forward to jackhammering lines through concrete, paying a plumber to put in the toilet not once, but twice, because I screwed up the drain lines and had to jackhammer the floor out again, and then have the electric box rewired for the baseboard heaters. I groused the entire time, and since I’m being honest here, I said a few bad words, too, when I was installing sheetrock, and I slammed my thumb with a hammer. Man, that hurt, and like holy fire.
My next goal? I need an outdoor kitchen. I’m tired of ferrying stuff in and out. When I put in the kitchen, it’ll make my life easier, because I can let someone else run the show. I can invite people over, give them the keys to the gate, and watch the party begin.
I’m glad no one’s asked for a pool. Ouch, that’s expensive, and I don’t make all that much money. And to dig that hole myself? I’m not sure even I could do that.
Okay, now I really do have to get out of bed. That heater in my garage bathroom costs a lot to run. I think I left it on after the party last night, and I’ve got an electric bill to pay.
Man, being a god sucks.
MY NAME. YEAH, SORRY. I’M LIKE THAT, sometimes, off on a tangent. I am out of bed, now. How’s that for a tangent? I’m not a morning person, as you can clearly tell, but then, everyone who knows me knows that. Don’t mess with me until I’ve had my first cup of coffee, or I might just as well bite your head off.
How’s that for god talk? Words. It’s all just words. Take offense, if you want, but words don’t matter. It’s what someone perceives that matters, and that’s what the god-thing does to me. My “god-i-ness” makes it important to me what others perceive about what I do.
There I go! I was determined not to try and describe what this is all about, because you can’t. You simply cannot put in black and white what all this god stuff is about. If the Jews couldn’t do it in the Old Testament, how can I expect to get it down correctly in this little volume? I mean, after all, those guys knew what they were talking about, and I’m stumbling through the dark, blind every day, just hoping to miss the broken glass that litters the floor.
What I’m supposed to be doing is showing you how this god-thing has screwed up my life. Showing, not telling. Life examples, real things I’ve lived through, that type of nonsense. Things you wouldn’t believe, and still, I’m here, and people love me, and all I want to do is get on with it, and by that I mean, being normal, scratching, spitting, and all that stuff. Instead, I get the god stuff, and that means I can’t live my life on the beach with the person of my dreams at my side, just chilling myself into old age. If you’ve ever heard that song by Jimmy Buffett, you know what I want my life to be like. Sponge cake, sun, and tourists covered with oil, my days buried in a margarita haze. I’d like that, to let my life slide on by without any responsibilities to anyone else.
Well, maybe one other person, but that’ll never happen. Count on it.
Oh, my name. I may go off on tangents, but I do manage to pull myself back to the main question now and again. Chip. As in Chipper, Chipster, Chippy, or any variation you can imagine. One junior high buddy used to call me Jodhpur. I never got it for a long time, not until he passed me a note in sex ed with my name on it. For two years I thought he had a lisp. Turned out he was calling me a skinny good-for-nothing, although I guess he had the right, because I’ve always known I have no hips. Still, it’s not fun to have someone make fun of your skinny butt, even if it really is skinny.
I’m still friends with Chalky Hollingberry, by the way. I gave him that name after I learned of mine, because of the color of his eyes. They’re a washed-out gray, and I intended it to make fun, but I found I can’t even do that. Chalky said it was his first nickname ever. He was thrilled, and he’s been my friend ever since.
How’s that for being a god? I make fun of someone, and they become a worshipful fan. I’m careful what I say to Chalky now. Next thing, and he’ll be looking for a cross so that he can deify me. Ouch. I don’t need to be elevated to that level of godhood.
You can probably guess Chip’s not my real name. I got that because my mom said I’m like my dad. I don’t see how. He wasn’t a god, not by a long stretch, not unless he tried to drown his “god” powers in Kentucky bourbon. Although, now that I think about it, there have been a few times when I’ve thought about that very thing. If alcohol didn’t taste so bitter to me, I might be more like my dad. Well, except he’s dead, and I’m not sure I want to be that much like him, not for a few more years, anyway. I’m officially Pieter Christopher Engelbrecht III. That’s a mouthful, huh? I started my life as Chris, and that devolved into Chip. Well, I should be grateful. Chris is very close to Christ, and wouldn’t that be a crock? Another Christ, here in the 21st century, and it’s me. I don’t think so.
How’d I get that wonderful mouthful of a name? My grandfather, lucky guy. He got it first when he was born in South Africa back in the twenties. He fled to the Big Apple, the family never got out of Queens, and here I am, NYU scholarships and all. Lucky me. I ran away from it all. Now I call Houston home. Texas is half a continent away from the Big Apple, and I can think here.
And you know what takes the cake? Chalky followed me all the way from New York. I guess I could call him my first convert. Now, understand that I’m laughing when I say this, but he could be my first disciple. A really good god has to have disciples, doesn’t he?
Even if he doesn’t want to be a god at all.
Okay, I’m brushing my teeth, now. I can’t do that and talk, so I’ll have to wrap this up for a bit. Oh, and in case you want to know? Colgate Tarter Control with Extra Whitening, and my toothbrush has a handle in the shape of a dinosaur. I’ve always had this thing for dinosaurs. My mom used to buy me T. rex sheets, and when I moved here, it took me a long time to find a place that could custom order them for me. I said they were for my nephew, but I don’t have a nephew, so you know where they are. The dinos on my boxers? Well, we won’t even go there. Just understand that I have a thing for the suckers, and they make really good quality boxers with anything you want printed on them. I like dinosaurs, and nobody sees my boxers except me, so I can do what I want.
Except with the god-thing. Then I do what the god-thing wants. The god curse. That’s what it is, you know. It controls me, and not the other way around.
Well, I’m standing here with my dino toothbrush in hand, and I really have to brush. I have to be at work in 45 minutes, and I’m not getting there with my dinosaurs on display. So, for what it’s worth, catch you on the rebound, dude.
IF YOU KNOW WHAT I DO FOR A LIVING, it might help you understand me. I forget how important that is for some people. Me? What I get to do is the god-thing. No, that’s not really it. What I’m forced to do is the god-thing. I have no choice, just like when you go to a restaurant, and you walk by the dessert table, and there’s no way you’re getting out without at least one slice of chocolate cake. Oh, sure, you can walk on past, but you’ll dream about that cake until next week, and maybe even longer than that, so you might as well indulge today.
The god-thing is like that. I can walk on by. Yeah, sure, I can do that. See a kid with a scratched knee, and I can look the other way like I never saw anything at all, and the kid’ll never know, other than that some cheesy man ignored him in his darkest time of pain and peril. But me? I’ll know, and I’ll think about it, and I’ll have regrets, and I’ll return to that corner day after day, just hoping to see the kid again so I can reach out to him, to ease his pain somehow, even if the scrape is already well.
So, yeah, I can walk on by, but it’s better to just do it, whatever I’m required to do, and that, I guess, wipes some spiritual slate clean, and I can move on with my life. You can see how my god-thing controls me, how it’s what I do. However, it’s not how I pay the bills. I may be a god, but I still have to eat and cover the electric bill, and keep a roof over my head. All that and buy Colgate toothpaste and dinosaur sheets. Yeah, those are important, too, for my mental health, if not for the comfort of my god-like tush.
So, what do I do? Duh, what all good godlings do. I teach school, but not just anything. I teach junior high, that funky age when kids don’t know if they’re undergrown or overgrown, but where they’ll back you down in a heartbeat if you even suggest they’re still little kids, which of course they are. Anyway, kids that age need a lot of healing-type stuff going on in their lives. Especially the emotional stuff, and guess who’s good at that? A god, duh! And that has to be me, so there I am, teaching my science classes every day, trying to figure out how to work on kids without seeming to work on kids. That’s tough, because I don’t want to be arrested and sent to jail because I’ve got my arm around some crying fourteen girl whose step-brother just jumped her for the fourth night in a row. Not even a god wants to do time in the slammer for trying to help out a kid.
But, hey, what am I supposed to do? Let her continue to get jumped night after night? I won’t even consider that, so like the fool that I am, I leap (after I look), and I get involved. First, I let her know I suspect she’s dealing with something big, and I let her know I want to help. Then, I start the process. Sometimes it’s a call to the local police, but more often I get the school counselor involved. I have to be careful, though. I have questions I have to answer, like, How, Mr. Engelbrecht, are you aware of this instance of sexual abuse in Mary Jane’s home? Has she spoken with you about this?
Mary Jane will deny it, of course, because she hasn’t said anything to me, so it helps if I can get her to talk about it with me. That can get sticky, because Mary Jane’s not saying anything if anyone else is around, and to spend time alone with Mary Jane can create a pretty dicey situation for me. Imagine this: Ah, Mr. Engelbrecht, just what were you doing with Mary Jane alone and in your classroom for twenty minutes last Thursday?
See my point? Yet, the god-thing won’t let me look past the girl as if nothing’s happening, so I have to figure out how to get her to talk without getting her alone behind closed doors. It’s stupid, but it’s tough walking through life with your arm twisted behind your back, forced to deal with everyone else’s problems, even when you don’t want to.
Well, with Mary Jane, I walked with her in the hall one day, with kids everywhere, and believe it or not, that’s a good time, because there’s so much going on that no one pays attention to a teacher talking to one of his students. This is junior high, remember. Kids at that age see a teacher in the hall, and they automatically envision a void right where that teacher’s standing, sort of a no man’s land black hole where nothing good or interesting could possibly be going on, because, after all, what interesting thing could there possibly be in the life of an adult? Anyway, I punched her lightly on the shoulder and said, “You’re a good kid, Mary Jane. You need to talk, I’m your man.” I winked at her and went on as if it didn’t mean anything. The next day I was talking with another teacher, and someone bumped into me. It didn’t register, and then I felt something pressed into my hand. I turned to catch Mary Jane walking down the hall, focused on something I couldn’t see. Then she called to a friend, laughed, and they broke into a fit of giggles. Girl stuff, things shared in a strange language I wouldn’t understand in a million years. My hand? I held a note, from Mary Jane, I suspected.
That was how it worked with Mary Jane. In that note, she made the connection I needed to broach the subject with the counselor, and we got her the help she needed. How was my god-thing involved in this? That was how I knew this bright, friendly, and beautiful child was suffering under the assault of a nineteen-year-old who couldn’t keep his pants zipped around his step-sister. It was also what drove me to distraction until I helped resolve her issues.
Oh, and there’s one more thing I can do, not that I enjoy it. I can see things others can’t. Now, before you cringe, it’s not like dead people or anything like that. As far as I know, dead people are really dead, and I hope they go to Heaven, but I’m not aware that any of them hang around here to haunt the rest of us. I can see things bad people don’t want me to see, like stashes of pictures on memory cards hidden inside rolled socks in the top of closets. Of course, Mary Jane’s step-brother denied molesting her, but with the pictures he’d taken, he was dead in the water. You can’t have a picture of your own, um, personal member attached to another person’s, um, equally personal member and deny that it was you doing the deed. Yeah, he got locked away, and Mary Jane was better. You see, that’s the good part of the god-thing. I do all the rest because I have to. What I get to do is the healing part. When I was with Mary Jane in that courtroom, and the sentencing was over, she came up to me, crying, and she gave me a hug. It was in full public view, and with the situation, I was safe in letting her do so, but I could feel the terror still inside the girl. That was when I let the god power flow, and I healed her inside. I can do that. How? You’re asking the wrong person the answer to that, but I know it works, because I can feel when I do it. The pain is like a piece of broken glass inside a person, and I can feel the sharp edges poking, jabbing, and slicing their emotions. The tears are the blood that leaks out when the glass cuts too deeply. Well, I just reach in, and with a brush of my hand, I smooth all the rough edges, and the glass doesn’t cut anymore. I can’t remove it, so I can’t help them forget. Dear God, I wish I could do that. But I can’t. So, I make it not hurt anymore. What I think happens is that I seal all the memories in a bubble, and the person can see inside, but they can’t touch them anymore, and that makes it okay. Sometimes okay is the best we can hope for, and that’s what I do, give them okay.
Well, Mary Jane cried for a minute, and then she stopped. And when she pulled away, she said, “You’re special, Mr. Engelbrecht. Hugging you, I don’t hurt anymore. I’ll be okay after this. Thank you.” I didn’t see any real change in Mary Jane’s behavior in school after that, and she didn’t treat me as if I’d done anything special for her, but then, she hadn’t seemed messed up before. She just giggled at silly jokes, sometimes turned in her papers late, and was a regular kid. Then, that was the point. Mary Jane needed the chance to be a regular kid, and with that step-brother of hers, that would never happen. I hope she grows up happy, but now, at least she has that chance.
So, the god-thing isn’t all bad, not like I make it out, but if I could move to Hawaii and surf all day, that’d be stupid fine. Now, I’ve got a red light that doesn’t want to change, and if I don’t get a move on, I’m not getting signed in before the vice-principal closes up the book, and I’ll get a demerit on my record. If only I could change the lights to green when I needed it, I’d be happy to put up with all the other god stuff I have to do. But I can’t even get that, just one green light to make my life easier.
Like I’ve said, more times than I can count, being a god sucks if I can’t use any of my powers for myself. That sucks like a lemon on steroids.
I don’t even like lemons.
SO, OF COURSE, THE BOOK WAS GONE when I got to the office to sign in, but it had nothing to do with that sluggish red light. No, it had to do with the dumpster on West Dallas. I knew what it was when I drove by, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off that rusted hulk of metal. I mean, it was a regular old dumpster, sitting askew in its dumpster bay, with one of its plastic lids up and the other closed. There was even a black trash bag sitting on the pavement beside it, as if someone couldn’t be bothered to actually toss it inside.
How much more normal could you get? It was a dumpster, for heaven’s sake!
After I drove by, it was stuck in my mind, though. Like, what goes in dumpsters? Last week’s garbage, empty toilet rolls, and tons of dirty diapers. Oh, and old televisions, although those are supposed to be recycled, even if we know not everyone does that. Serial killers sometimes put in extra arms and legs, double wrapped in heavy duty bags, I suppose, so they don’t smell before they make it to the dump. The news hadn’t said anything about a rash of odd killings, so I shrugged that off. It didn’t feel like that’s what drew me to that rusty dumpster.
No, I thought, as I stopped at the next light, with the dumpster just visible in my rear view mirror, it was something sinister, but what, I wasn’t sure. It felt like old greasy pizza boxes that have baked in the sun too long, and they’ve begun to turn rank. That type of feeling, something maybe not bad, not at first, but that’s been allowed to go bad, like it could have been cleaned up earlier without too much problem, but now the stink had spoiled everything touching it.
I made it to school, but as I was getting out of my car, I was focused on that dumpster; and not thinking, I left my nametag and my room key in my console. I was at the front door before I remembered, and I had to go back and get them. My one redeeming action? I said good morning to the veep before heading back to my car. For that, she let me step into her office and sign without a demerit, although she gave me the “eye” and told me to plan better next time.
I’ve never had to use my god-thing powers with Mrs. Lamar, so she has no reason to be grateful, and that means I’m like a piece of sand in her shoe, forgotten when I get out of the way, but very irritating when she notices me. It’s not fun to be sand in someone else’s shoe. Then, Mrs. Lamar is very much in control of every part of her life, so I can’t imagine anything she touches ever falling apart, no matter how hard life tries to beat her down. Still, if she ever needs my attention, I’ll be there for her, because that’s what I do, help people, whether they want me to or not.
Once I got to my classroom, I forgot the dumpster for a while. There on my door was a giant card signed by all the students in my last period class. The Friday before, I had to leave early to help with the school assembly. Our basketball team is going to regionals, and the student council planned an impromptu pep rally. Planned and impromptu used together in the same sentence make an oxymoron, I know, but then this is junior high. Even when seventh and eighth graders plan something, trust me, it’s still impromptu. So, I volunteered to help, and that’s why I left my class early, to help set up the gym for orderly attendance. In the 20 minutes or so they were left alone, the kids had made me a giant card wishing me a good weekend. Now I wish I’d come back by the classroom to collect it. I would’ve enjoyed showing it off all weekend.
I put it on my desk, opening it to look at some of the inscriptions. There was Mary Jane’s. You’re the best, Mr. Engelbrecht. Nah, M.J., I thought. Just doing my job, because I don’t have any other choice. Still, what she said made me feel good, like being a god was sometimes all right, even if most of the time it wasn’t.
Then the teacher next door, Miss Mulford, rapped on the door, and when I looked up, she smiled and waved. Stefanie is single, like me, and she confides in me. Like, who her latest boyfriend is, and whether she thinks he’s marriage material. I listen, mostly. Stefanie could use some god-like instruction, but until she really hits a brick wall, and I mean really hits a brick wall, my god powers aren’t likely to kick in. At least they never have until now, and we’ve been in next-door rooms for over five years. With her romantic disasters aplenty, you’d think it would have kicked in, already, if it were going to. Then, that’s not the sort of disaster I help people with, other than listening and refusing to offer advice. I just smile and say, “He sounds like a nice guy. Could you live with three Dobermans in your apartment?” That’s usually all it takes, and within a week or two, Stefanie has it figured out on her own. Stefanie’s a smart woman, and I don’t think anyone has to worry about what goes on in her life. She can handle herself pretty well.
This morning she wanted to make sure I got the card. That’s Stefanie, social queen, always checking up on people to make sure they get their due, that they get noticed when they do something right. I understood what she was saying. Your kids love you, Chip. Just look at that card, if you don’t believe it. And me, I’m so lucky to teach with you, even if you never do ask me out on a date.
That last part? I made that up. In all actuality, I don’t think Stefanie would go out with me if I asked. She has enough boyfriends without me getting in the way. But then, I don’t have any Dobermans. That’s one mark in my favor.
I am subscribed to a couple news channels that send in the latest on my email. The school doesn’t mind that as long as we don’t use our school email account to do personal stuff or send mass memos to everyone in the district. It was second period when I noticed my email icon at the bottom of the screen blinking, and I double-clicked it, wondering what was so important that it had a little red exclamation mark out to the side. That was when my morning dumpster sighting came back to me in full force.
There had been an explosion in one of the city’s dumpsters. Guess which one. Yeah, it doesn’t take much to figure this one out. West Dallas Street. Hm. Want to bet it’s a rusty dumpster with a black plastic trash bag sitting beside it? Now I wanted to kick myself. I should have pulled over and checked out what was inside.
Of course, then I might have lost an arm or a leg. Being a god doesn’t keep all your body parts together in an explosion, and it doesn’t help you regrow any missing pieces when it’s all said and done, either. Even a god has to be smart enough to know when to step back and leave well enough alone. That’s how you keep on being a god, rather than a martyr that used to be a god.
You think I grouse about being a god? You don’t want to hear how I’ll grouse if I ever become a martyr. I said people don’t hang around once they’re dead, but don’t bet the bank on us gods. Now, I’ve never seen a dead god, because I don’t see dead people, but I bet that I could stupid well hang around to torment a few people if I were ever killed, and I’d do it just for the kick of it, all because I thought I could.
Yeah, that’d be fun, a little payback to whoever took me out. I wouldn’t mind that at all. That dumpster? I was getting the strongest feeling that I wasn’t through with that rusty hulk anytime soon.
Man, I dreaded that thought. Dumpsters stink to gosh-awful heaven, but how else am I supposed to find out if it means anything? I’ve got to climb inside and see if I get any “vibes” from the residue that’s left. Once I’ve finished that, I get to drive back to my house, throw my clothes away, and shower five times. If I’m lucky, then the stink will be gone, and that’s only if I’m lucky.
Like I said, being a god sucks, and there’s no two ways around that.
I PUNCHED MY FIST AGAINST THE WALL in my supply closet. Dadgum, it hurt! It’s concrete block, so I can’t punch through it, thank goodness. After all, I don’t have a magic hammer like Thor, able to break through solid rock with a crushing crunch, or super strength like Superman, with the ability to compress ordinary coal into diamond. No, I break knuckles and get bruises under my skin, more like a human.
Anyway, I keep an extra winter jacket hanging in the closet, and it pads the wall when I’ve reached my frustration point. Now, you think I’m talking about my kids, somebody backtalking me, setting me off just to get under my skin, but I’m not. No, they’re a pain in the backside, sometimes, but I’m never angry at them, not enough to punch the wall. I save that for my god-thing, when it frustrates me so much that I simply can’t get through another minute without doing something.
Mary Jane didn’t show up in my last period class. I know, kids don’t show up all the time, and we’re supposed to count them absent and prepare a makeup packet for them to pick up when they return. No big deal. However, and there’s always a however. Usually, anyway. There was this time. The however? Mary Jane doesn’t miss. Ever. Even when she was going through all that bull with her crappy step-brother, she never missed a day. Smiled every morning, just like it was the best day of her life. We fixed that, but the fact was, she was the same ole same ole, and I depended on her to be in her chair like clockwork.
That empty chair was a handful of long fingernails scraping a chalkboard and digging into my psyche like bloody chicken legs in a pan of chicken and rice. Yech!
“Anyone seen Mary Jane?” I called it into the room, thinking maybe she had stopped by the nurse or something. Things like that happen, and if she showed up with a pass, I wouldn’t have to count her as tardy. The boy sitting in the seat behind hers, Alfonzo Maldonado, raised his hand in an, “I’m cool, and I can’t believe you don’t know this,” way, and he rolled his eyes as I nodded at him. “Alfonzo?”
“Hey, you know that brother love she dealt with last year, well, he got out on a technicality. The latest dope on the line is he wanted to see his chick last night, and he got a little rough in the sack.” Alfonzo shrugged and gave a little snort. It was more of a high school response than eighth grade, but Alfonzo was held back several times over the years, so he’d be a junior next year if he’d kept his grades up.
“How do you know this, homie brother?” I teased him with that sometimes, and I think he liked the corniness of it. It got a smile out of him, and he looked around the classroom at the other students, seeing them watching him, and warming up. Me? I was sick to my stomach. Not Mary Jane.
“Yeah, my sis, she got knocked up, and she thought she was gonna punch one out last night.” He grinned, as if it were the latest episode in a soap opera. “We had to make a run to the doc, and while we were waiting, some ambulance stiffs brought a chick in, all messed up like, and I saw M. J.’s mother come in all teary eyed. That’s what happened, Mr. E.”
“And you were there.” I tried to keep control. Alfonzo’s clumsy English? That was his gang persona, because he used his verbs correctly. He was all about how others saw him. Still, he wasn’t a liar, never around me. I trusted what he said.
“Yeah, man, and that’s why I don’t got my homework.” He leaned back, working his shoulders, with his head all cocky-like.
“You don’t got your homework?”
“Kay, Mr. E. I get it.” He laughed and gave me a half wink. “Don’t have.” He dismissed the conversation, turning away, and dug in his backpack, pulling out a spiral and a pen, and he started putting his heading on a fresh sheet like he was really ready to learn today. As if.
I saved the punching thing until I went in to get some supplies—test tubes or slides, I don’t remember—and I think I punched the wall to get my mind off Mary Jane. A technicality? What sort of technicality? And the thing is, I hadn’t known it was coming. When I’ve helped someone, then something about them hangs on for a while, and I sorta track them. It’s not stalking, nothing like that. I don’t drive by their houses and look in their windows. It’s more like I’m aware of them and whether they’re having a good day or not. Sometimes I can sense if they’re struggling, or if something has come up that’s setting them back. You know, like jailed, incestuous step-brothers getting-out-of-prison-on-a-technicality stuff. I can sense those things.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of that dumpster. To me, they were two entirely separate events, a blown-up dumpster and a girl thrown back with a jackal of a brother who didn’t deserve to walk the streets of the same city with her. I guess it was teaching in the Houston school district. Here, half the kids in my classes have serious issues they deal with every day. Like Alfonzo, no father, a pregnant sister, and a mother who thinks her kids’ problems are a punishment from God. Yeah, I’ve sat through a few teacher-parent conferences over Alfonzo. That woman is the punishment inflicted on her family. If I had real god powers, I’d give her a makeover or two. It doesn’t work that way, though. I seem to find the out-of-the-ordinary stuff that makes your skin crawl. At least it does mine. I assume it does that to everyone. If not, what’s wrong with you? Are you a pervert, like Mary Jane’s brother? Man, I hope not.
After class was over, I asked around in the office to see if anyone knew anything about Mary Jane. I said Alfonzo had mentioned seeing her mother at the emergency room, and that brought a laugh from everyone. They all know Alfonzo, and him being at the emergency room? That was more normal than not. His mother, you see. She’s a bit hysterical, and if she can pump up someone else to support her histrionics, she’s game, anytime, anywhere.
Anyway, Mrs. Chen, that’s our nurse, motioned me into her office with a finger to her lips. She’s like that, all private and mysterious. I didn’t see the deal, since we’re all staff, but she likes to make a scene, and hey, it’s no skin off my knees. So, I followed her into her office.
“You know Mary Jane had some issues last year.” She looked at me over the top of her glasses. Yeah, I was at the trial, but I kept an interested look on my face. “Did you hear that her brother went to prison for his involvement?” She waited expectantly, as if she wanted me to answer.
“Sure. I remember that.” Let her think she was giving me fresh news, and she’d bleed everything out. I could hear the ladies at the front desk getting ready to shut the office down, keys out and stuff like that. Mrs. Chen wouldn’t mind, though. She might even open up if it was just the two of us.
“It seems there was no actual warrant to search his things, and in an appeal, all the pictures used as evidence got thrown out. Shame, because it was obvious he did it.” She shook her head and pursed her lips. “Too bad, you know, with poor Mary Jane just fourteen. But I don’t blame her.”
“What do you mean?” My heart caught. Blame Mary Jane? What had she done wrong?
“You use Dallas to get to work sometimes, right?”
“Sometimes.” Almost every day, unless there was a wreck or I had errands to run. I talked about it all the time, so it wasn’t like she didn’t know. She was putting off telling me something, and that meant it was bad.
“You’ve seen the car wash at Taft?” She peered at me, waiting. “White building?”
“Yes.” I was making the connection, and I didn’t like it. That dumpster from this morning was at Taft, cattycorner from the car wash, just across from the Gregory-Lincoln Education Center. My good friend Charisse Winston teaches second there. I could have called her to find out what was going on.
“Well,” and she looked away, hesitating, which is not like Mrs. Chen at all, “a dumpster across the street caught on fire this morning, and it seems Mary Jane’s brother was inside when it happened.”
Thank goodness, I thought. He didn’t kill her. Then it hit me what I was hearing; and with the wham of an epiphany going off like a gong in my head, I put all the facts together. Brother, out of prison. Sister, in the emergency room. Dumpster, brother inside. Finally, there’d been a big boom. Something really bad had gone down, to say it Alfonzo’s way. Some really bad stuff had hit the fan. I hoped the resulting effluent didn’t get all over Mary Jane.
“And Mary Jane? She’s in my last class of the day, you know.” She probably did, but me saying it gave me good reason for asking. You know, keeping the air clean, all that teacher and student confidentiality mumbo-jumbo. “Alfonzo said he saw her in the emergency room.” Not exactly, but it was what he had insinuated.
“Sent home; told not to pee; and to come back when the crowd thinned.” What she didn’t say was clear. It was standard operating procedure at an overcrowded free clinic. Typical free and typical useless clinic. Mary Jane had gone in, needing help, and they’d turned her away.
“Her step-brother again?”
Mrs. Chen nodded in reply, looking at me over her glasses.
“She was attacked, and they sent her home?” I felt anger boiling up inside. After all I’d done to help the girl out last time, and her bravery in confiding in me. How could an atrocity like this be allowed to happen?
“I know, Mr. Engelbrecht, but there was a gang thing last night, and Mary Jane could walk. Well, I haven’t spoken with her mother today, but someone needs to go over there. Do you think you, possibly?”
She didn’t flesh out the question, and it was just as well. I got the picture, and I wanted to get involved. This was the perfect opportunity for me to jump in without appearing to jump in. Thank you, Mrs. Chen. You are the sweetest woman, and I love you very much, even if you do have a husband and seven grandchildren. I can still love you, because you did exactly what I wouldn’t have thought of. You sent me straight to the source rather than to that dumpster. Now I won’t have to throw my clothes away. Thank you, ma’am, and you are, indeed, my very favorite school nurse, ever.
I did go back and check my classroom door to make sure no one had left me a note. Nah, it was clean, but it was also locked. I saw Stefanie’s light on, and I leaned in, calling to her to have a good evening. Even when part of the world is collapsing for some people, we should still be polite to the others, because if politeness falls into the gutter, what else do we have? Nothing much at all.
I’d have to work at being polite to Mary Jane’s brother, if he was still alive. What I wanted to do was cut some stuff off, the stuff between his legs, not to be too specific. Yeah, I’d do that, and I wouldn’t even think twice about it. Mary Jane deserves a better life, and besides, I’m angry with myself that I wasn’t able to prevent this. If being a god doesn’t let me help other people, what point is there? None, and I’ll be more than willing to toss this god-thing in a dumpster, one that will hopefully explode just after I chuck it inside.
It doesn’t work that day, but I can imagine. Better, I’ll see what Mary Jane needs, and once again I’ll try to make her life right.
I still refuse to admit, at least in this, that sometimes there’s nothing I can do. The reality is that you can’t always make things right, no matter how hard you try. Especially, and I mean this, if you’re a stupid, useless god like me.