HOLLYWOOD—After tearing Jason’s worksheets into shreds, Mad Queen Georgia strode down the hallway of the pre-fab Boise Cascade office bungalow, trailed by her long-suffering lackey, Roxie Cloud. Roxie, who had once been a cruise ship activities director, was smoothing out ruffled feathers and putting out fires for the vindictive, viper-tongued, vituperative Principal Foote, who as dusk swept westward across the vast San Fernando Valley, jetted home aboard her broomstick.

The blue-haired principal had struck Jason as completely sane when she’dinterviewed him for the ESL teaching position. She had even displayed a self-effacing sense of humor. “We call this the bungalow,” she gestured to her administrative digs, “because this is where we bungle school policy.” The joke elicited gales of disproportionate laughter from Roxie.

A few days after the interview, Jason was informed on the telephone he had been chosen for the job. Deciding to take it was a bit like choosing between the blue pill, where you’d wake up and think it had been a dream, or the red pill that would take you down the rabbit hole. Jason chose the rabbit hole.

Now a few long months and a lot of heartburn and flop sweat under the bridge, Jason realized he was in the clutches of a madwoman. Plain and simple. Enough exasperating encounters had occurred to enable Jason to take into stride having his worksheet torn to shreds; nevertheless, he was boiling tonight. He wanted to strangle someone as he navigated through the mazy campus without a lesson, without a safety net to fall back on.

Miss Fenwick was turning a corner. She had a nice neck, wreathed in a floral scarf. She looked back and gave him a warm, toothy smile. It made Jason utter friendly words that were so at odds with his murderous thoughts he might as well have been listening to another person talk.

“Happy New Year, Mr. Finch,” she chirped.

With an actor’s cheery resilience in the face of despair, Jason managed a bright, “Happy New Year,” and added, “How is Harold passing the new year?”
“Harold is passing it quite well. We went to Pismo Beach for one weekend,” Miss Fenwick said. Harold was her sky-blue 1972 Dodge Dart. “The rest of the holiday I spent organizing and filing papers at home. Not very exciting. And you?”“I went for 10 days to Ohio. Spent some quality time with my mom,” he lied. They had been at each other’s throats half the time.“Family. There’s nothing like family,” Miss. Fenwick said. “You don’t pay any attention to your loved ones, and then they’re gone. My aunt’s gone, my mom and dad. Hold on while you can. When they’re gone you’ll hear their voices every day, and you’ll regret you didn’t spend more time. . . Well, have a good class.”

Abruptly, he came to the group of students milling around the classroom door in the dark and the cold. They were a curious collection of slouches and smiles, huddled in heavy jackets and scarves to fend off the creeping cold of the Valley. It was always a good 10 degrees colder or hotter this side of the mountain.

Jason reached for the room key in his pocket. He made the disagreeable discovery that he had neglected to pick up his classroom key in the bungalow. He went to room 36. The teacher, Mr. Leonard, a wiry, intense, dark-haired man, taught grade school in the day. Serious lifer. One of these schmucks who believes in education, believes you can change people; he’s a hard core educator who had debuted on the staff a few weeks before the holiday, and until now Jason had successfully avoided all but the shallowest niceties. Christ, you couldn’t change people, but you could sure as hell entertain them.

Thank heaven Mr. Leonard’s key to that room would fit the lock on his door. The catch was that file cabinet required an individual key, so that eliminated the use of vital crutches for creating the facsimile of a lesson: bingo cards, the disk player and the sets of class books and picture dictionaries. Boy, Jason was going to be whistling Dixie tonight. Stabbing pains throbbed in his chest cavity, and yet he remained erect.

The students filed in and the door closed on the salt mine. It was deathly, Jason riffled through papers, looked downward. He cleared his throat; he cleared his throat again as if the preamble to saying something would have the magical effect of producing something to say. Students grew restive, they looked at him blankly.

Then his cell phone rang. He leapt to it.

The students saw Jason’s face go from elated to crushed in 0.03 seconds.

“Something wrong, Mr. Finch?” they asked. “Is your family O.K.?”“It’s nothing,” he dissembled, and a tear rolled out the corner of his eye. He hadn’t been chosen for the part.

(to be continued)