An Ungraceful Gesture

Grif didn’t know what to make of the new teacher dressed in an oversized man’s wool sweater and a long patchwork hippie skirt. Three weeks ago, at the interview, Lila Waterford had worn a smart two-piece suit, heels, and carried an expensive leather briefcase. An import from Phoenix, he thought she’d bring a little professionalism to the rural one-building school nestled amongst the towering ponderosa pines of the northern Arizona forest.

Now, he could see he was wrong. She was a mess. Not only were her clothes too big and looked like they came out of a church donation box, she was pale, slack. Her long copper hair was pulled back into a loose bun, none of the styled curls he’d noticed earlier.

Lila sat at her desk, grading papers, or so it seemed. Grif watched as she moved her pen across the page, transferred the worksheet from one folder to the next, eyes vacant. He tapped lightly on the door. She jumped, startled. Her green ballpoint pen clattered on the linoleum tile./p>

“Just wanted to stop in and see how your first few weeks were going.”

“Fine.” She looked up at him with red-rimmed eyes.

Grif groaned to himself. He had a weakness for women who cried. His own wife had cried on his shoulder during her first divorce and he fell for her, hard. As a school administrator, he’d become too involved in the daily dramas of the teachers he supervised. His Achilles heel.

Every day, someone appeared at this office door. Listening to complaints about irate parents or unruly students, he understood, was part of the job. A principal is not just an administrator, but also a mediator and a public relations specialist. However, he had pitched himself as a principal who cared, as a principal who listened. He ended up as a sounding board as young teachers cried over their latest cowboy break-up. What listening and caring got him was a revolving therapy door set in an elementary school office.

Grif gritted his teeth. He’d promised himself. He was determined to draw the line this school year. No more emotional sagas at work. Keep it all business.

He focused on the wreck of a woman in front of him. “The children seem to enjoy your class. The parents all said positive things at back to school night.”

Lila Waterford nodded. She knew she was a good teacher, he could tell. Over five years of experience, and her Phoenix references had glowed with praise.

“If there’s anything you need to talk about, my office is always open.” Damn. He’d done it again. So much for his new school year resolution. Drawing the line began at closing his own mouth.

That’s what Kate, his wife, had said often enough. Her comments were tinged with jealousy. “You spend more time talking to your teachers than you do me or Alec.” Alec was his sixteen-year-old stepson. “Alec has made it clear,” Grif retorted, “that he would rather talk to his father.”

“Thanks.” Lila grabbed a tissue from the box that lined up neatly with the edge of her desk and wiped her eyes. She picked up the file full of worksheets and tapped them on the desk, organizing them into one smooth stack. She glanced up at him still watching her, and gave a small nod.

He left – it was after five – easing his Harley out of the school’s gravel parking lot. The bike, and the black leather riding jacket, were his luxuries, the things that broke him out of the school principal persona. Grif gave his bike full throttle once he hit the interstate. The wide stretch of road was where his mind emptied. For thirty miles, he didn’t think of work or of home, of Lila or Kate. It was only the wind and the sun and the hot vibration of the machine beneath him.

 

On Monday morning, the line formed. Grif’s office adjoined the teacher’s lounge, so there was no way to avoid the morning traffic of teachers rushing in, filling up their coffee mugs, their chatter and gossip.

Peg was first at his door, tapping her foot and waving her attendance card. She hated the new attendance system and let him know each morning. Megan, the school librarian, was next; her eyes filled with their usual Monday morning tears. Another fight with the boyfriend, Grif thought. Megan never took his continued advice to end it. Instead, she showed up each week, distressed over the boyfriend’s newest slight.

Lila, he saw, took her mail from her cubby and glanced questionably at the queue.

“Am I missing a meeting?” she asked. She looked tired but had made some effort to pull her hair back smoothly. She wore a fitted pantsuit.

“No,” Peg huffed. “I need to show him how Aggie messed up the attendance again. The quarter totals are wrong.” Peg Grant was born and raised locally in Aims, a patchwork community of ranches and trailer parks. Grif always tread lightly around Peg. Her in-laws, ranch owners, had been on the school board for decades.

“It’s not the end of the quarter yet,” Grif said, still seated at his desk. “Don’t worry about it.

“I’ll have to recount each absence. Seriously. The school board should have her fired.”

“I’ll talk to her. We’ll check the computer database to make sure there are no glitches.”

“You always say that—”

“Peg, you have a class now. Next. Megan, what’s wrong?”

“I might have to leave early today,” she sniffed.

“Fine. Tell the teachers who have library on their schedule so they can make other plans.”

“Don’t you want to know why?”

Not really. He really didn’t.

“Brandon is going to a conference in Virginia. For two weeks! What kind of conference lasts for two weeks?”

“Doesn’t his family live there?”

“Well…yes.” Megan snuffled. “But two weeks! We’ve been dating for six months. Shouldn’t he invite me to meet his parents? And he’s going back again at Christmas. Why won’t he invite me for the holidays?”

Grif rubbed his forehead. “Megan, do what you need to do.” He didn’t need to hear the whole story at five minutes before eight. Children would be pouring into the building. Their giggles and yells echoed from the playground.

“My class has library this afternoon.” Lila. She had observed Megan’s drama.

“Well, I’m going to have to cancel.” Megan reached past the threshold of his doorway and grabbed the box of tissues from his desk. He’d have to move those out to the lounge, right in the middle of the long table. That would be a good first step to solving his problem.

“Why?” Lila’s voice was sharp. “Are you sick? Do you have a family emergency?”

“It’s personal,” said Megan.

Lila stacked her mail on his desk, much as she did her students’ worksheets. “We all have problems but we’re not shirking our job over them. I don’t see why your boyfriend’s conference should make my class miss library for a second week.”

Megan gasped. No one had ever argued her absences before because everyone else, Grif suddenly realized, wanted the same benefit. He wasn’t one to enforce the personal day policy and even Peg took one emergency day each quarter. If anyone needed a day off, Lila did.

Before Grif could speak, Lila turned to him. “Is that how it works around here? Evan and I had a fight last night. Can I leave?”

He and Kate had had another fight, too. He felt like taking off but that would mean being at home. Grif wanted out of the house. Work was his refuge. Perhaps it was Lila’s refuge too.

He’d met Evan Waterford once, the first week of school. Evan was a construction manager and had been transferred from Phoenix to supervise a new project. A neighborhood of luxury homes at the base of the mountains, designed for folks from Phoenix and Vegas, looking to escape the heat. He’d brought Lila a packed lunch in a brown paper bag. She’d introduced him to everyone. Evan had stayed by her side. Ate lunch with the teachers in the lounge. He’d watched Lila teach for an hour or two. His behavior struck Grif as a little clingy, like a high school boy watching his prom date dance with someone else.

“That’s enough.” Grif cleared his throat, hating, hating, confrontation. “Megan, fill out your leave slip and see if you can find a substitute. If you can’t get a sub, Lila can bring her class to the library anyway. I’ll supervise.”

“She can’t check out books without me!” Megan wailed. “You don’t know how to use the circulation program.”

“Then I guess you should be there!” Lila snapped. “I don’t understand the handholding around here. Everyone has problems. Don’t bring them into work.”

The eight o’clock bell rang. His escape. “Goodbye. Both of you. Go teach your students.” He leaned back in his chair, stunned. Everything Grif had tried to summon within himself, Lila Waterford had pronounced in one sentence.

Fall break approached, a two-day reprieve in mid-October that neither celebrated Columbus Day nor the end of the marking period. Grif lived for those two days. They rejuvenated his need to feel needed, his reasons for going into public education in the first place. Christmas break relaxed him and spring break let him know he could coast through until June. August through October – those were the toughest months. If he could get through the beginning six weeks of school, those uphill ones, he knew he was set for the rest of the year.

“Let’s get this show on the road,” he told his staff at the weekly Wednesday pep talk meeting. “You’ve all done a good job this year. I was going to call an in-service day tomorrow—”

Groans. Protest from the dozen faculty members who sat in the children’s plastic chairs in the school library. He wondered if corporate executives who complained about the amount of money spent on public schools would say the same if they had to sit in student-sized seats for most of their meetings. “You can’t call it now!” “We’ve already made plans!”

“But I decided not to.” He grinned. Sometimes they were so gullible, always ready to believe the worst. “We’ll save the professional development for a January workday.” January meant snow. Workdays usually got canceled. Another year of minimal teacher workshops.

Sighs of relief. Sometimes he wondered if he had a subconscious motivation to make himself look better. Put forth the negative, replace with the positive.

“Let’s review this week. First off, the county fair field trip went smoothly.”

“Minus Jason Begay running into the sheep pen,” said Hank Zimmerman, the fourth grade teacher and the only other male on staff. When hiring Hank, Grif had hoped for a little hormonal balance for the faculty, as if that would make him into the administrator he was supposed to be, not the counselor.

“Minus that. But you caught him right away. No harm, no foul.” He often used clichés to praise his staff. At the end of the year, he thought he’d have the words embossed on a t-shirt or coffee mug. Maybe he’d get a box of those magnets and spell out the sayings on his filing cabinet each day. “Take a look at your agenda. Next up, attendance matters.”

Deep sighs.

“Remember to mark out the 19th and 20th on your attendance card.” Aggie Zimmerman was Hank’s wife. They were hired as a package deal.

“You don’t need to remind us each week,” interrupted Peg. “Grif, can you please change the agenda? Aggie says the same thing every Wednesday.”

“Well, apparently I do need to say something. Someone keeps making mistakes,” said Aggie.

All eyes turned to Lila Waterford. She pushed loose strands of hair out of her face, a rare ungraceful gesture, Grif thought. He wished he could have pushed her hair aside for her. The desire jolted him. He’d never cheated on Kate; and that thought jolted him too. The possibility of it had never crossed his mind, not in their eight years of marriage.

“It was probably me,” Lila continued. “I’ll double-check my attendance card.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, motioning to Aggie to keep quiet.

“If I’m making a mistake, I’ll correct it.”

“Fine. Do what you need to do.” He looked at Lila again as he proclaimed the meeting finished. Even though she was tired, drawn, he felt the pull of attraction. Time to walk away from this now. Grif retreated from the library first, waving his hand in the air as a backward goodbye.

 

Aims existed as checkerboard landscape of ranches, trailer homes, and hunting cabins, and now, thanks to Evan Waterford, five acre lots with three thousand square foot homes. The community hub was The Store, a log cabin-style building next to the school. Inside housed the post office, general store, with a single countertop, which served as a bar, and a gas station. Most of the time, Grif avoided it, and drove straight home.

But the Harley was low on fuel. He wouldn’t make it the thirty miles to town. He pulled up to the gas station. Lila Waterford filled up her compact two-door on the opposite side of the pump.

“Don’t let them push you around in the meetings,” he said after they both greeted each other with awkward, out of place hellos.

“I’m not. I just don’t…” She screwed the gas cap back on and waited for the machine to dispense her receipt. “Never mind. Aggie and Peg are the least of my problems.”

Grif kept his eye on the gas meter. He wasn’t going to spend over twenty dollars at this overpriced place. “They could go a little easier on you. You’re new.”

She stepped around to his side of the pump. He noticed the deep green of her eyes, like the color of pines, of moss.

“Then do something.” Her voice was low, serious.

For a moment, Grif didn’t know if she was talking about the fuel ready to spill out of his tank or her job situation. The meter hit forty dollars. He lifted out the pump and gasoline dribbled across his black snakeskin boot.

“Do something?”

She looked up at him under her disarray of red curls. “If you think they are being too hard on me, then why don’t you do something?”

“Look, Lila. That’s just how Peg and Aggie are. They’re complainers, they’ve got their own power struggle going on, and they aren’t going to change.”

“But you’re in charge. Right? I mean, if you think they’re being unfair to me, if you see me outside of school and tell me not to let them push me around…then they’re pushing, aren’t they? So you see it. So do something about it.” Her voice was pitched and dry.

He gripped his keys so tightly that they cut through the leather of his fingerless black gloves. “If you want to stop by my office in the morning—”

“No. Never mind.” She waved her pale, smooth hand, in a manner that dismissed him.

“Just like that? Everything is fine?”

“Like I said, I have bigger problems.”

“How do you do it? Separate yourself so easily and not bring those things into school?” That wasn’t completely true. She’d looked like hell for the better part of two weeks but she hadn’t sought him out for counseling.

“Work is work. Then I go home. That’s where things matter.”

“True.” He thought about his wife, his teenaged stepson, and the weird triangle that existed in their house. Alec was usually successful in creating conflict. Grif was put in situations he didn’t want to deal with, a middleman between Kate and her ex. He realized too, as he talked to Lila, it was the first time his family had crossed his mind all day. Kate was right. He had spoken more to Lila this week than he had his own wife.

“Well.” She reached for him. No. She reached for his waiting receipt and pulled it from the machine. “Here.”

Her fingers brushed his as he took the paper from her and he wanted nothing more than to take her back to his office, to the couch, to his desk, he didn’t care. He wanted to dig his hands into her thick hair, bury himself there. That’s why she’d done it, why she’d handed him the receipt. For that instant of heat and spark.

She turned away, back to her car. “Thanks for the…” Her voice was silenced as she shut the door.

Thanks for what? A brief moment of want? What had he given her?

 

On the golden, warm, October day of fall break, he rode his Harley to the Canyon to enjoy the sun before winter snow really socked them in. In his rush to get out of his house, he’d forgotten supplies and stopped at Aims for a couple bottles of water. From the side parking lot of the store, he saw lights in Lila’s classroom.

As soon as he saw her, he regretted his decision. “You’re not supposed to be here.” Neither should he. He wanted to touch her again. The brief brush of fingertips at the gas station the day before wasn’t enough.

“I have work to do.” She shuffled things on her immaculate desk. It looked as if she had very little work to do. She had set up a coffee pot on the windowsill. Several water bottles lined the bookshelves. She planned to be there for a while.

He sat at one of the fifth grade desks. His riding gear squeaked, the leather pants, the Harley jacket. He felt foolish.

“It’s a holiday. You want to tell me the real reason why you’re here?”

The classroom television was on mute, but the news channel ran its yellow headline ticker tape across the bottom of the screen. Lila Waterford wasn’t working at all. She was hanging out.

She pulled two mugs from her desk drawer and tossed him several packets of sugar. “Coffee?”

Grif poured the packets in his cup after tasting. She made her brew strong.

She sipped her coffee. A chipped brown pottery mug hid her face. Her eyes wandered over to the television.

“Want to tell me why you’re here?” Grif asked.

“We’ve been fighting.”

“Does Evan know where you are?”

“He’s at work. I didn’t tell him today was a vacation. I didn’t want to set him off.”

She managed a small smile. Coffee spilled as she set the mug on her desk.

“It’s just a day off.” Grif, although confused as to why fall break would anger the man, understood the fighting. That was why he rode out to the Canyon alone. Let his stepson do whatever he wanted. He was done trying to discipline him. Let his wife handle her own kid. He was sick of it.

“Things aren’t going well. I needed to be alone.”

Grif shifted in his too-small chair, waited for her to continue.

“I’m thinking of leaving,” Lila said quietly.

Grif drew in his breath, as if suddenly, there was a bit of hope for him. Don’t leave.

“Things have gotten bad. He’s been saying…things. Really horrible things. I go back and forth. Tried to get Evan to go to counseling.” She tapped the edge of her coffee cup with a plain, unpolished fingernail. Kate’s nails were French manicured with gel tips. She never missed her bi-weekly salon appointment.

“Horrible things? Like what?”

She shook her head. “I’m not going to repeat them.”

Grif grew concerned. He knew, in a textbook sense, how these things could escalate. “Has he hit you?”

“No. That’s the thing. It would be an easier decision if he did, you know? No questions. No counselors. I could just go.”

“If it’s that bad…If you need help…”

“This job is the one thing I do have,” she motioned to the classroom. “Everything else is back in San Diego. My parents, my brother.”

“So he hasn’t hit you?” He had to ask again. Just to be certain.

“No. In fact, it’s just the opposite.” She looked away. “He won’t touch me.”

Grif flexed his fingers, resisting his own urge.

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask more questions, to probe. Forget the Canyon, forget his family. Sit here and talk to Lila. He’d offer solutions, encourage her to leave Evan but stay at the school, and then she too would stop by his office each morning with a grateful, gorgeous smile. Feel needed instead of always being dismissed with a wave of her delicate hand or the shake of her thick red hair, bound up in an overflowing knot.

He was incredulous of the husband who would not touch her. If he could trace one finger across her hand, one time, push that errant curl from her eyes. He reached over the desk to her, to move a lock of auburn that fell across her brow. A brief caress, a brush along her forehead, her cheekbone…

She flinched. He froze and realized what he had done. He shoved his wayward hand into his jacket pocket and clenched his motorcycle keys, his preferred form of self-flagellation, until he was certain of puncture wounds. Realized how close he was to the line; how close he’d come to crossing it. He had to draw that line anew; a fence of barbed wire, of concrete, of whatever it had to be so that he could not get through.

“Well then.” He stood from the desk and his leather creaked in the silent room. “Well then. See you Monday.”

Lila Waterford watched him until he walked away.

Sheila Lamb is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Queens University of Charlotte. Her writing has appeared in Monkeybicyle, jmww, and elsewhere. Her work has earned Pushcart and storySouth Million Writers Award nominations and she’s also the editor for The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal.

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One Response to An Ungraceful Gesture

  1. sheilarlamb says:

    Reblogged this on Sheila R. Lamb and commented:
    Very happy to have a new short story up at Eunoia Review. Check out this online literary journal – lots of great stories and poems!

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