LOS ANGELES—In the parking lot of Jefferson High, as the last seconds of holiday and freedom frittered away, Jason Finch wiped his moist, vomit-speckled underlip on his houndstooth jacket sleeve.
In the first months of nightly teaching, his body had suffered a barrage of crippling chest pains and palpitations. His mouth had dried, and it seemed an impossibility that a human could go on standing and talking, feeling that at any moment he could keel over in front of his class as they subjected him to the torture of yawns and mindless jabbering in their native tongues. Getting the brush off galls any actor, and Jason truly died every night in room 39, and trudged home corseted in flop sweat unlike any the onetime star of Eureka College’s stage production of Hamlet had ever known.
When Jason’s paycheck would come at monthly intervals, oddly spaced around the calendar, preventing permanent solvency or landlordly happiness, he could scowl at those dollars and cents and muse, “So that’s what all the flop sweat and heartburn are worth.”
Night after night he had weathered the body’s revolt and kept standing through pains that would’ve left Hercules crumpled on the floor. If there was a bright side to the agony, it was this: when the Fred Sanford “big one,” the doozy of a coronary came to take Jason home, he could never possibly discern, after suffering the seizing symptoms he’d suffered, invariably diagnosed as stage fright or acid reflux, and after having swallowed a formidable array of ineffective antacids and herbal supplements, our thespian had withstood so many palpitations, throbbings, stomach plungings and sharp twingings of the brain without collapsing, that now he’d be in heaven before any real medical crisis would ever persuade his fingers to call 9-1-1.
Turning into the school from the Hollywood freeway, Jason had noted the blinking Jefferson High sign thinking the Regal Waste Co., for generously donating to the children’s Christmas toy drive. The time was 6:25 p.m. Late, late, late. On the car radio he heard some news: a man had thrown acid into his baby’s eyes; another poor soul, informed of winning the lottery, had dropped dead from the thrill; and there was a manhunt on for a border agent from Chula Vista who had kept illegals holed up in his house. Snap! He turned the radio off with fury. For the umpteenth time he fumbled with his cellphone and scrutinized it with the look of somebody who discovers their pocket has been picked. He expected a message from results of the callback from his Christmas break audition.
At 6:29 p.m. Jason hurried out of the car and cursed as his wingtip stepped in his own still-warm vomit.
The ruddy man who minded the parking lot uttered a happy new year. By now the year was long enough in the tooth to dispense with that depressing salutation except for a group of people joined in the same mission, who were separated by a lengthy Christmas holiday, felt obligated to resuscitate it on January 7.
“Happy New Year,” Jason returned, summoning his best actorly zeal. It was weak and lifeless at best. His mouth had become a coffin, the lid came off and out poured the stench of an utterance greenish and moldy as week-old bread.
“Happy New Year,” replied Childers, under the jaunty captain’s hat. He was captain of the parking lot.
“How was your holiday, sir?” said Childers’s in a raspy, braying voice.
“Wonderful time with the family,” Jason lied. “Too short.”
“Your family is short?” Childers said.
“No no,” said Jason. “I meant the time.”
“It always goes so fast,” Childers chimed in.
Jason beelined for the copy room, the stuffy windowless sanctum that stood in for the water cooler at the night school office. The hollow New Year’s greetings repeated, multiplied and populated. Each returning teacher had a cliched thumbnail description idealizing their holidays. Such a crowd had gathered to use the finicky copier, that Jason despaired of ever copying the worksheets in his hand. The wall clock said 6:30 p.m. Showtime.
“Why are all my pages coming out blank?” cried Miss Fenwick.
“There’s no toner,” said Jason.
Just then on one of her rare appearances, Ms. Georgia Foote, the blue-haired principal appeared in the doorway, and barked, “You don’t need toner,” and yanked the worksheets out of Jason’s hands and ripped them to shreds. “You can do a lot with a chalkboard,” Georgia hissed. The woman was always erupting about something. She was the Vesuvius of administrators.
“You’re all late,” she shrieked. “Now run to class!”
From dealing with his alky mother, Jason knew not to say anything, not even look askance at the woman. Not for nothing had Georgia Foote earned the moniker, Mad Queen Georgia. He didn’t dare check his cellphone again to see if he’d gotten the role in the commercial audition.
(to be continued)