That Concerns You Concerns Me
by Christie VanLaningham
Emma smiles because she has chosen to endure
this damp, colorless town. Her feet hurt. She stares blankly out at the faces before her as she shifts her weight to one foot,
slides the other out of the tight leather shoe and stretches her toes like a flipper. It was her idea to keep the stable teaching
job, with Charles’ work so often keeping him away. His genius makes her
mistakes harder to understand and it is only in quiet moments like these that she admits them.
She thinks of their youth. The witless anticipation of adulthood, the
illusion that the world was waiting. There was a time, she thinks, when she could
have been as remarkable. When plans for the future had come fast and loose, charged
with the empty encouragement of billboards and flyers stapled to the telephone poles of foreign countries. Skylines full of steeples and crumbling chimneys had called up an almost hysterical tenderness within her.
It’s how you know you’re alive, a drunken Frenchman told her then, watching her play the tuneless piano of a Parisian
pawn shop. She still feels the jar of these minor collisions, years after being wrong made it necessary to act right. The
clock, which ticks audibly at the rear of the classroom, reads five after one; the longest hour of the day.
It’s difficult, now, to look into the
eyes of the children staring back at her and believe there is anything common between them.
They have been given strange names, speak abbreviated nonsense and rarely, if ever, touch. She sees one of them, a boy named Erasmus, slowly gouging a black hole into his desk with the stub of a
pencil. And the girls, they are vicious and starved, alien as the distant past, or perhaps, she thinks, it is the future she
sees in the slant of their hunched shoulders, in the roundness of their bent heads.
She cannot fathom that they will take anything of her with them when they go.
“Mrs. Wedgwood?” calls out a fat
boy in the third row. He wears glasses and a superior look. Sam Wilberforce can be relied upon to call out when Emma’s mind drifts, like it does on Wednesday
afternoons just after lunch. The question hangs in the fusty air. In the moment before she answers, not yet sure what she
will say but certain it won’t resemble closely enough the rote response provided by the school’s science curriculum,
Emma studies a hole in her stocking. There are a myriad of small, unaccountable
events that lead to where she stands: an ingrained Unitarian compulsion to do her part, three mortgages, a half-written concerto
in a drawer. No one knows that she doesn’t like children.
Emma never mentions her dissatisfaction with
the other teachers, who would claim to know what she is going through when she can see they do not. They move through the dingy halls with purpose, driven by what seems an instinctual desire for order. But Emma’s lesson plans are incomplete and she’s stopped taking roll. She’s forgotten the names of her colleagues’ grandchildren and pets, and
merely nods robotically when they mistake her faraway expression for loneliness. Her reputation as a good listener is undeserved. When they ask about Charles, Emma practices her proud smile and tells them that even
stonehearted scientists need their socks washed every couple of weeks.
She turns her head to look at the oversized
poster taped to the blackboard. Laminated amoeba, prehistoric skeletons and ape-men
gleam under the florescent lights. A complicated network of arrows and colored
lines joins dolphins, seahorses, hummingbirds and pterodactyls in such a way that it is rendered unintelligible from even
short distances. Emma slips her cooled toes back into her shoe.
“What was the question?” she asks
to everyone and no one, tracing the line of descent from an insect to an eagle without any intention of answering truthfully.
The smile on her face is thin, as if the situation is hopeless but not serious. She
thinks of Charles and breathes a singsong prayer out of habit, forgetting for a moment all that has come before.
“How can anyone know for sure?”
Wilberforce wants to know.
“You can’t,” says Emma. “You never, ever can.”
Christie VanLaningham is a fiction writer at the UAF MFA
program in Fairbanks, AK. Originally from Oregon, her work has been published
in Pushing Out the Boat, Prism, and Northwind Magazine. Most recently, she is
a scholarship recipient of the 2012 Tin House Writer's Workshop.