War of the Wills
It is eleven o’clock, twenty minutes before lunch time. My stomach is rumbling and gurgling so much that Alvin Hooper asks, “Didn’t you get any breakfast?” I give him one of my did-your-mother-have-any-kids-that-lived stars, and he shuts up.
Mr. Williams, our American History teacher, is handing out an outline of the lesson we will discuss today, something to do with the Puritans. He clears his throat, a signal for the class to start settling down, but the room actually gets louder. He’s going to have to yell to get these bozos to notice he’s in the room. When he does yell, the kids in the front row are blown out of their chairs, and the room vibrates for a good ten to twenty seconds.
The kids call him Mr. Ed because of his basso profundo voice, but his voice cracks, and his hands shake a little when he yells, a dead giveaway for the shirkers and ne’er-do-wells in here. Mr. W. is from the old school. He just doesn’t seem to understand that sophomores do not settle down just because the bell rings, especially this bunch of misfits and prima donnas. I’ve been trying to switch classes all quarter, but Mrs. Anderson, the counselor, is being pig-headed about it.
Don’t get me wrong; I like Mr. Williams, and he’s a very good teacher, too good for Newport High if you ask me. Nobody around here, including the administration, cares much about education. Mr. Potter, the principal, played cornerback for Michigan State; I doubt that he’d even be in teaching if it weren’t for Friday night football.
I look around the room. Clancy Lake and Alan Yates are sitting on the floor. Fred Butler is fixated on the traffic on Mercy Avenue outside the window, and Sam Cooper is carving something on his desk with the file from his fingernail clipper.
Mr. Williams notices Clancy and Alan sitting on the floor. “Damn it! Clancy and Alan, will you two sit in your desks? I’m tired of telling you. And take off those baseball caps.” I’ve never heard Mr. Williams swear. Nobody else is too surprised, though; they probably hear it from other teachers a lot.
When Mr. Williams found out I wanted to transfer out of his class, he took it kind of hard. He’s my next-door neighbor, and we talk a lot when I bring him his paper and when I cut his lawn. He pays me more than the other tightwads in the neighborhood.
He talked to me after class when he got the transfer request. “What’s wrong, Joe?” he said. “I thought you and I were friends.”
“It’s not you, Mr. W.,” I say. He’s always after me to call him Will. “It’s the jerks in this class. None of them give a damn about American History, and I need good grades if I’m going to be able to go to college. My folks don’t have the money to send me.”
“I can’t very well kick them out of class, Joe. You and I would be the only ones left.”
He’d actually made a joke. I couldn’t believe it; I hadn’t thought he had a sense of humor he’s so absorbed in his books. The man spent most of his time in his house reading. He didn’t even have a television set. When I was younger, I would sneak around the corner of his house and peak in his patio window, trying to get a look at what he was doing in there. Usually he was just sitting in the recliner reading a stack of newspapers. He gets three different ones every day.
“As you recall from our filmstrip,“ he says, “one of the reasons the colonists came to America was so that they could practice their religion free of hindrance from the government.”
Nobody pays any attention to him. He’s being unusually patient today. I reach in my pocket for the cotton balls I carry especially for this class. Alvin chuckles. He usually just puts his fingers in his ears. The slob.
I have been contemplating giving Mr. W. some advice about how to relate better to kids. First off, I’d get rid of the bow tie and the sports coat with the leather patches on the sleeves. He even wears them when the temperature is in the eighties. And I’d smile more. Tenth graders like teachers you can josh around with. Maybe then, I’d experiment some. Maybe get an earring. He’d be the first male teacher on the faculty to get one, and the kids would think he was way cool, and the women on the faculty would start salivating. I have always felt that Mr. Williams carries his forty some odd years well, with just a touch of grey around the temples and his hair combed in kind of a pompadour. A guy would think that a good-looking man like Mr. Williams would have women pawing at him constantly.
Mr. Williams doesn’t seem to be interested in women at all. I’ve never seen him with one---maybe that’s the reason for the rumors circulating through the halls of Newport institution for the intellectually challenged.
Rather than yell this time, Mr. W. tries to talk over the hubbub, which is what most of the other teachers do. “Can anyone cite a modern parallel?” He’ll have to rephrase that one. “Can anyone compare what was happening with the Puritans to what is going on now?” he asks. Mr. W. tries very hard to make history relevant.
Suddenly the room grows quiet. He’s asked them to participate, a shocking departure from the norm at Newport High. Three of us do that job in here: Cindy Weems, me, and Will Summers, and Mr. W. would prefer that Will would keep his comments to himself.
Cindy raises her hand. Mr. Williams nods at her as he is still handing out the outlines and is having trouble getting the pages to come unstuck.
“Last year Principal Potter wouldn’t let us have a Christmas tree in the lobby. He said it wasn’t fair to people who were non-Christian. I don’t think it’s fair to those of us who are Christians not to have one.”
Mr. Williams gets this look on his face like he’s just seen a nude scene pop up in one of the film strips he’s forever showing us. He gives the rest of the papers to Angie Fischer, who looks like she just might tell him where to put his outline, but then, she sighs as though handing out the outline is akin to plowing the north forty with a pair of mules, gets up, and passes out the rest of the papers, stopping at Will Summer’s desk to flirt.
“That’s excellent, Cindy. May I ask what you did about it?” He flicks dandruff off of his lapels---he’s been doing that so much that I’ve been tempted to leave a bottle of Tegrin in his PO box.
Cindy, who has invaded my dreams all year, has her dark hair cut in bangs like Cleopatra, and she has these rather oriental-looking eyes that operate like a laser when she decides to notice a guy. She says, “I didn’t do anything. He’s the principal.”
“Aren’t we supposed to be learning about the Puritans?” Will Summers says, doing his dead-on impersonation of Mr. Williams. Mr. Williams doesn’t seem to notice. Everybody else is kind of giggling. Will is tossing a football from hand to hand. It’s one of those midget-sized nerfballs that the elementary kids have. He tosses it to one of the other guys on the football team whenever Mr. Williams turns his back. It’s amazing Mr. W. hasn’t seen him do this yet, but then maybe he has and just doesn’t want to make a big deal out of something so minor.
Ordinarily, a teacher can put a quick stop to that sort of disrespect by walking over and standing next to the culprit. At least that’s what the coaches do. I guess close proximity is intimidating. But in this class there are thirty-five students, and Mr. Williams is lucky if he has room enough to turn around. Most of the time he kind of leans up against the chalkboard, and when class is over, he’s got chalk all over the back of his coat.
Mr. Williams runs his hand across his chin and smooths his mustache, something else Will has incorporated into his routine. “I’m glad you’re so interested, Will, but history if it’s any good at all needs to be relevant. Why don’t you tell us about another modern application.
Will shifts in his seat, looks up at the acoustic dots in the ceiling as if he’s on FIRING LINE with William F. Buckley and says, “Sex. The Puritans hated sex. The women wore these little bonnets to cover up their hair, and they wore long dresses so you couldn’t even see their ankles.”
I am shocked at Will’s thoughtful answer. Usually he hides his intelligence better than leprechauns hide their gold.
At one time Will Summers and I were best buds. He lives two blocks over from me on Overland Ave, near the park, and we were Dungeons and Dragons freaks together for most of our elementary years, until he put on forty pounds, all muscle, and grew six inches on me. In my sophomore year, I am still straining to reach 5’7”. I have been begging my parents to let me go out for football, but my mother thinks I’ll break a leg or something. She’s probably right.
“Excellent, Will, but what’s the modern application?”
“Those Puritans were obsessed by sex and so are we, only we’re obsessed in the other direction.”
“So, who do you think had the right idea?”
Angie, who is now in her element, goes right for the kill. “Speaking of sex, Mr. Williams. We’ve all been wondering . . .”
Mr. Williams, a life-long bachelor from what we’d been able to determine, begins to turn a dangerous shade of crimson. He should’ve known better.
I feel so sorry for the man I am inclined to help him out. I pretend Angie hasn’t said anything. “I think we need a happy medium, Sir, kind of like the Scandinavians. We’ve gone too far with this freedom of speech issue. I can go to a video store and rent an ex-rated movie, and I’m barely sixteen.”
“Was that ‘Big-Breasted Babes’ or ‘I Blew them All’?” Will says. Everybody laughs except Mr. Williams.
“Please come into the hall for a minute, Will.”
“I don’t think so, Mr. W. I’m happy where I am.” Everybody laughs again. Mr. Williams sighs and goes to the intercom where he flips the switch and talks into the speaker. “Mrs. Smith, would you send Mr. Potter down here?”
“He’s in a meeting,” she says.
I feel so sorry for Mr. Williams it could be me up there, but I have no idea what to do.
“OK, teach. I’ll go, but you never did answer Angie’s question. I heard you like guys.”
“That will cost you three days detention, Will,” Mr. W. says.
Will saunters to the front of the room, showing off his blue jeans and his white T-shirt with “Party on” scrawled across the front in red, both of which are taboo according to the dress code. Will is the starting quarterback on the football team, and there’s no way he’s going to do any three days detention since detention means suspension.
This must be at least the third time Mr. Williams has kicked Will out of class. A guy would think Mr. Potter would get the message that maybe these two have got a personality conflict or something.
That night I have to stay after school to make up one of Mr. Williams’ tests cause last week when he gave it, I had the flu. As I’m taking the
thing---it’s mostly short answer and essay, nothing like the multiple choice tests in most of my other classes---he’s sitting up at his desk chewing on the stem of his pipe looking at me kind of funny.
Finally, he says, “Joey, can I ask you a personal question?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Today, what Angie said in class. Is that something that---”
I hesitate for just the briefest moment, I guess because I like to think I’m a straight-shooter, then I say, “Nah, Angie Fischer has sex on the brain. Don’t pay any attention to her.”
He does that thing with his mustache and his chin. “You know Joe, I’m thinking of quitting. I can count on one hand the number of students I have who give a tinker’s damn about what I teach.”
I can’t think of anything to say that would remotely rebut what he’d said, so I say the first thing that pops into my head. “Who were all those people watching that Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War then, Mr. W.?”
He taps the pipe stem up against this coffee cup he has on his desk. It has a picture of Frederick Douglas on it. “I doubt that many teenagers sat through much of that, Joey, and that was about as good as it gets.”
“Don’t quit, Mr. W. Next year you’ll have a whole new batch of kids.”
“I guess you’re right, but it isn’t only the kids. Teaching is the loneliest profession there is. I don’t talk to any of the other teachers in the department, except maybe at meetings. None of them invite me over. I guess because I’m not married.”
I put the pencil down and cross my arms, defensive body language I’ve heard. This is much too personal for me. I’ve never even had this kind of conversation with my own father, or mother for that matter.
“Were you ever married, Sir?”
“I went to school until I was forty, Joe. I always told myself there was plenty of time. I just don’t know any women who care about the kinds of issues I care about---philosophy, psychology, literature, that sort of thing. I swear their eyes glaze over . . .”
A light bulb goes off above my head, or at least one would have if I’d been a cartoon. “Why didn’t you say something, Will? I have an aunt who’s just as boring as you are, and guess what? She’s a university psychology teacher.”
Mr. Williams’ face breaks into this massive smile. I sure hope his face won’t crack on him. “You’re a nice boy, Joey,” he says in that radio announcer’s voice of his.
I feel so good about our man-to-man talk that I decide to go see Will Summers and tell him to leave Mr. Williams alone. Considering Will is a former friend and all, this is not the simple task you’d think it would be. He has made fun of my ineptitude in gym; he makes sucking noises with his football friends when I pass in the hall.
Mrs. Summers, who could pass for June Cleaver any day, answers the door. “Joey!” she yelps, as if I’m some kind of long lost prodigal who’s been missing since the Truman administration. She used to feed me and Will chocolate chip cookies until we’d throw up. According to Will it’s all she knew how to make. “How long has it been?” she shrieks.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Summers. A few years I guess. Is Will home?”
“He’s in his room. You go right on up.”
Will’s door is open and he’s got the stereo cranked up to at least nine decibels. Quiet Riot yet. I’m afraid that if I go in there my ear drums will pop like carnival balloons.
He looks up at me, but his eyes don’t seem to focus. He must think I’m some kind of mirage or something. Then I notice the smell. Will has been smoking pot.
“Hey, Hoser, whatcha doing?” he says. “You ain’t been over here in a coon’s age. I got some beer, want some?”
“Sure, I could drink one,” I say, though I personally can’t stand the stuff and can’t see how anybody else can drink it.
Will has got this ice chest under his bed, and he pops the top on a Budweiser and hands it up to me. The music is still baring in the background. I take a drink, and my eyes start to water. Will smirks up at me.
“I know what you want,” Will says. “I’ve seen you ogling Cindy Weems. You want me to line you up with her?”
I sit down on this foot rest Will has positioned in the middle of the room, amidst the clutter. I clear the magazines out of the way, Penthouse, Hustler and the like. He doesn’t even bother to hide them under his mattress as I do.
“Isn’t she hot?” I say. “I doubt that she’d walk across the street to spit on me if I were dying of thirst though.”
“You never know,” he says. “Still waters run deep. Say, I’m glad you came. I’m going to need a bit of tutoring in American History. Mr. Ed is threatening to flunk me, and the coach says anything lower than a C, and he’s going to put Jacobs at quarterback against Johnson.”
“The coach said that? He’s probably bluffing you, Wilbur.”
Will’s face goes slack. No one has called him Wilbur since our Dungeons and Dragons days. “Don’t call me that,” he says.
“Sorry. I’d be happy to help you out with American History. You can learn most of that stuff a lot easier on CD ROM, just the bare essentials anyway, if you’re not into cause and effect.”
Will took a slug of beer and ran his hand across his hair. It was just as jet black as Elvis’s after he’d dyed it. Will liked to brag about his Cherokee blood, ironic coming from a bigot.
“So, what ken I do for you, Joe?”
The time for idle chatter is over. My heart is beating so fast I think it can’t possibly hold up. I’m going to need defibrillation, and those emergency people will need to shock me with one of those paddles. “You can leave Mr. Williams alone,” I say. “He’s a friend of mine. We live next door to each other, and he’s always been good to me and my family. He’s a good teacher, and he doesn’t deserve the kind of guff you and your friends give him.”
“I hate gays, Joe. They make me sick.”
“He’s not gay, Will. That’s just some stupid rumor. How would you like it if people said that about you?”
Will’s eyes go to half-mast, and all the life goes out of them. “Look, Fucker,” he says. “I have a feeling you and Mr. Ed have been getting a little too chummy, if you know what I mean. I don’t need your help with American History; I’ll get Cindy to help me.”
The next day is more of the same, although Mr. Williams has moved to a safer topic, the Indian wars. He has this little book about a white woman who was captured by the Hurons, got married to an Indian man, and had children with him. When she was rescued, she wouldn’t leave them.
Angie Fischer is doing her nails, and Will and his friend Jack Blake are overtly tossing the football back and forth. Will’s eyes are so red I’m surprised he can see the ball.
Will realizes he can’t get a reaction out of Mr. W. with the football, so he tries a different tack. “I heard it was the official government policy to get rid of all the Indians by killing the buffalo.”
“Not these Indians, Will,” Mr. W. says. “During colonial times they were encouraged to assimilate, and many of them did. Some of the Cherokees, for instance, had plantations and owned slaves.”
“My dad says all Indians are drunks,” Will says.
I can’t imagine where Will is going with this, since he always brags about his Cherokee blood.
“That’s a gross generalization I’m afraid, Will.”
Will tenses up so much I’d swear Mr. W. had just slapped him across the face. “Are you calling my father a liar?”
Mr. Williams hesitates for just a moment, as if he’s suddenly realized, after all these weeks, that he may be dealing with a psychopath. But he charges ahead anyway. “No,” he says, “the alcoholic rate among Native Americans is very high, but there are many Native Americans who live middle class lives. Did you know for instance that there’s a senator from Colorado who’s a Native American?”
When Mr. W. turns to write Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s name on the board, Will throws the football at Mr. W. and hits him in the back.
The whole class gasps. This is something new.
I must admit that Mr. W. is awfully calm about it. I guess he’s expected something like this to happen eventually.
“I’m not going to send you down to the office this time, Will. I doubt that it would do any good anyway. I would like to see you after school, however. You and I will talk this out.” He picks up the football and puts it in his desk drawer.
Mr. Williams’ hair is mussed and he has sweat on his upper lip and his heart has to be beating faster than a Beatnik’s bongo drum. I notice something else peculiar about Mr. Williams. He’s not wearing the bow tie. He’s got one of those new silk ties that cost twenty-some bucks. He looks almost civilized.
Thank God the bell picks this time to ring. Some of the kids are in such a hurry to get out of that room that several get pushed out into the hall and some others have their heels stepped on.
I try to hang behind and give Mr. Williams a reassuring smile, but he won’t look at me.
Some of the guys in the hall are laughing at Mr. Williams. “What a chickenshit bastard,” Jack Blake says. Will Summers is nowhere to be seen.
All day long there are rumors flying about how Will and the football team are going to show up after school and beat the crap out of Mr. Williams. I know snitches are not welcome at Newport High. I know my days are numbered at Newport if I tell, but I decide to take the chance anyway. I go to see Mr. Potter.
Usually, I would have had to wait something like an hour to see the principal, but this time the secretary waves me right in.
“Hey, Joe,” Mr. Potter says. “How’s the old man?” Mr. Potter and my dad belong to the Lion’s Club. He’s been at the house for weekly game of pinochle, my dad’s passion.
“He’s okay, Sir. I’ll get right to the point. There was an incident this morning in Mr. Williams’ American History class.”
Mr. Potter gets this look on his face, like I’d just mentioned the Boston Strangler. “What did he do?” he says.
“Mr. Williams didn’t do anything. Will Summers threw a football at him and hit him in the back. Mr. Williams is going to talk to him about it after school, and some of the guys are planning to beat him up.”
The phone rings. Mr. Potter punches a button and says, “Hold my calls, Ruth.” He sits there staring a hole through me. “Mr. Williams should have reported this to the office,” he says. “Was Will provoked in any fashion do you think?”
“No, just the opposite. Will said that all Indians were drunks. I think he was trying to pick a fight with Mr. Williams, and when it didn’t work, he threw the football.”
Mr. Potter rubs his hand over his eyes, dragging the lids down so’s he looks remarkably like a bloodhound. “Was this that junior-sized football I see Will with all the time? I’ve been meaning to take that thing away. That couldn’t have hurt much, could it have?”
I cannot believe my ears.
Mr. Potter runs his fingers over a list of phone numbers he’s got taped to his desk. “I guess I’ll have to call the police,” he says. “This is assault. No matter what Will threw at him.”
I clear my throat. It is so dry that I’m tempted to reach over and grab the glass of water Mr. Potter has on his desk. “I think that would only make matters worse, Sir. I just don’t want to see something terrible happen. I’d like you to check on them after school is all and maybe talk to the coach about this. Will has been harassing Mr. Williams all year, and nobody ever does anything about it.”
“There goes the football season, I guess,” he says. “Don’t worry, Son. We’ll take care of it.”
“Another thing, Mr. Potter. I wanted to ask if you’d approve my transfer. You know how this kind of thing gets around. They’ll know who told you about this.”
That night I go home and tell my dad I want to go to the Catholic school in Dawson. He begins to salivate as Dawson Catholic is his alma mater, and he’s been hounding me to go there for what seems like an eternity.
Sirens go off around six o’clock. I know the time because the six o’clock news is on, and at first, I confuse them with the television. Mr. Williams’ car is not in the drive. I remember thinking, “Oh, no. Those goddamned idiots let Mr. Williams get beat up.”
The next day my mom tries to wake me up for school, and I tell her I never want to see that place again. Dad tells her he’s sorry. He meant to tell her about my decision. I can hear the phone ring. My dad says, “That’s horrible Steve.”
Immediately, I have the feeling I was right about the siren the previous night. Dad is standing in the doorway.
He’s still wearing his ratty bathrobe, and his hair is sticking up all over the place. “That was Principal Potter on the phone. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you, son. It’s Will. Will Summers. He’s been murdered.”
My legs don’t work, so I roll over and fall out of bed. All I can say is, “How?”
“Mr. Williams lost it and strangled him with his tie. He went to the parish priest and turned himself in. He doesn’t remember anything about it.”
“Those goddamned fucking idiots.”
“Son, that kind of language doesn’t help matters.”
I get back in bed, lay there and stare at the ceiling for what seems like hours. There’s a spider up there that I really should kill. I get up around noon and call the school, asking to speak to Cindy Weems. My hand isn’t shaking at all as it has all those other times I’ve started calling her, and my voice is as clear as a bell.
I can’t believe they actually page her for me.
“This is Cindy Weems,” she says, after a ten minute wait.
“Cindy, this is Joey Evans. I won’t be coming back to school anymore after what happened with Will and everything, but I’d like to know what they’re saying.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Joey. I’ve been meaning to speak to you. There’s really no one else to talk to about . . . Mrs. Smith is giving me the fish eye. You know the rumor that was going around yesterday? Well, the other football players didn’t show up. At least they say they didn’t. If it were up to me . . . I guess that’s all I know. Joey, would you like to talk to someone? I’ll call you, okay?”
My feet are cold. It can’t be more than forty degrees outside. I look around for my slippers. They’re nowhere to be found. “I’d like that, Cindy. Do you know where they’ve got Mr. Williams? I’d like to go see him. There’s probably a lynch mob building if I know this town.”
“Probably in Dawson.” I should’ve known. Dawson is our county seat, where the jail is. “I’ve got to get back to class, Joey. It’s chaos, as you can imagine. But the teachers are trying.”
When I get to Dawson, the dispatcher won’t let me in to see Mr. Williams at first.
“He doesn’t have any other family, Ma’am.”
She gives me this understanding look, kind of like the look my mother gives me when I tell her my asthma is acting up. “I’ll ask him if he wants to see you. What’s the name?”
Mr. Williams is wearing an orange prison uniform with paper slippers. He actually looks better in prison garb than he usually does if I’m any judge.
“I just came to see if you need anything,” I say. “Guess what? I called the school and talked to Cindy Weems. She says if it was up to her . . .”
Tears begin to roll down his cheeks. “Joey, I never thought . . .”
Seeing him cry is almost as bad as seeing my own father cry, and thankfully, that has never happened yet, and I hope it never does.
“It’ll be okay,” I say. “You didn’t mean to do it.”
“Yes, I did, Joey. On some level I’ve been meaning to hurt Will Summers ever since I first saw him.”
Six months later, after the furor has settled---some idiot has tried to set fire to Mr. Williams’ house; another carved a doughnut on his lawn with his car---Mr. Williams pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter and is given a seven-year sentence. I try to write to him in prison but never get an answer. I guess he just wants to start all over.
Cindy and I often talk about what a puzzling place the world is. “Yeah,” I say. “If it hadn’t been for what happened to Will, I never would have been able to talk to you.”
She smiles and squeezes my hand.