Story no. 25.
Charlie’s car was affectionately known by his coworkers and students as the Doughnut. The crash had completely destroyed the driver’s side door, crunching it up like a ball of aluminum foil and leaving a a crumple all down the back that meant you had to fold down the back seat from the inside to get inside the trunk.
Pretty much all his money had gone for his legs: the reconstruction; then, when that failed, the amputation; then, when he’d recovered a bit, a wheelchair; and finally the physical thterapy to get used to his technosticks. It hadn’t left much money for the car, so Zach, his younger brother, had rummaged through the scrap yard until he found a door that matched his ’87 Oldsmobile. It was pink. The rest of the car was brown, with silver streaks where the fucking truck had dug in its fucking claws. Somehow that made it the Doughnut.
Charlie had frankly not expected to need a car again. He had let Zach do whaever he liked. They lived together on the top floor of a dilapidated Victorian house on Sixth Street, and during his two years of healing Charlie would whisper at the cracks in the ceiling to the accompaniment of banging and diligent cursing from the street below. About thirteen months in, his doctor subtracted painkillers and added Prozac to his morning cocktail, and he stopped murmuring to inanimate objects. Mostly.
The technosticks were fucking hilarious, he thought. Running blades. Whatever. He had been the track coach, so the Catholic, Baptist, and Lutheran churches held a fundraiser to get up enough money to buy him an excruciatingly well-designed, brutally expensive pair of carbon fiber prostheses, intended for athletes.
The presentation ceremony had been humiliating. He had started crying when he opened the package. It wasn’t that he was touched, exactly. He just didn’t know what to do. He had calmed his mind-shattering anxiety with a simple belief: his life was over, and, once people stopped paying attention the tragedy of their Poor Dear Mister Nolan, he could formalize that fact. But with the stupid new blades in his hands the future ripped wide open again, letting it unroll over the horizon like an infinite but undefined mass of gray; and he had no idea how to go about addressing its reappearance.
Nola’s car was affectionately known as the Shitheap. The paint was bright, acid green, but her brother had hit a deer with it three years ago, and its body has swung around into the backseat and spread shit all over the inside of the car. Her brother had disappeared a year after that, which was why they had moved from Alpine to Hickory Junction, and why her dad still got a dazed look on his face like he’d been kicked in the head every so often.
There had also been the matter of Mister Kline and her expulsion from Alpine Community High School that had made the move seem like a good idea. When the school nurse found out what she and Mister Kline had been doing in his Chevy on the far edge of the practice field, Mister Kline got fired. Laura Innman wanted to press charges, too, so that Jonathon Kline would serve time in the state penitentiary. But Nola’s mind went curiously blank when she was questioned about the incident(s); she couldn’t, for the life of her, remember whether it had been her idea or his idea for them to take off their pants. For some reason it seemed very important that it had been her idea. If it had been her idea, she, Nola Robbins, was the expert woman of the world who had fucked the very dashing silver fox Mister Kline, whose wife, everyone knew, was kind of a bitch. She stayed with that theory, and, respecting her agency, Principal Gutierrez very respectfully expelled her.
Upon entering Hickory Park Memorial High (the town was Hickory Junction, but the school was Hickory Park) Nola resolved to herself: she would pick the best and most lovely male teacher and fuck him. She was a femme fatale. She was Lady Chatterley. She was Brigitte Bardot and Beyonce. She was probably Lolita, too, but that made her kind of sick to think about, so she went back to the way Beyonce shimmied her shoulders.
Mister Nolan, who taught world history and civics, was the clear choice. She had thought Mister Kline foxy; but he had nothing on the sheer sculpted beauty of Mister Nolan’s face, the light in his green eyes, the shine of his auburn curls. He was also younger than Mister Kline was by about fifteen years. The coincidence in their names, Nolan and Nola, made it clear that it was kismet.
Charlie knew he should make the kid stop coming to his classroom after school, but he didn’t have the heart to kick her out. They had all been debriefed on the incidents at Alpine, forty miles away; the name of the girl had never been mentioned, but they were both small towns.
He had reported her attentions the first time she showed up in his room to Principal Delacroix, but he knew, with a certain sadness, that he didn’t need to. No one would have believed anything untoward was happening, because the fact of the matter was that the kid was ugly. Butt ugly. She looked like a cross between a pug and a smashed soda can, with acne, and she was fat. In the defiant manner of those who are aware of their looks, she had painted herself in a shellac of crispy personality: head half-shaved, hair dyed black with a single pink streak in front, black nail polish, pierced septum, eyelids covered in solid black paint, wrists ensconced in spiked leather bands. He thought that if she could keep her spark she’d be incredibly attractive, if not lovely, in about ten years, but her spark was sputtering.
So he didn’t kick her out of his classroom. She read widely and mostly inappropriately for her age. She’d read The Little Prince fourteen times in the original French, but she still didn’t get it, she told him. Like, isn’t it weird to have this suicidal little kid on a fucking different planet?
Language, he said. The high school had been built in the 70s and so, most fortunately, his room had a wall of glass between it and the hallway. The American history teacher, Larry Jorgensen, the ninth-grade English teacher, Faye Mycovich, and the special ed instructor, Heather Vaunhof, could all see him without even leaning out of their rooms.
He wondered if the kidlet knew how sad it was, as she perched on a desk by the blackboard and ranted about how much she hated Jonathan Franzen and how much she loved Toni Morrison, that she obviously thought she was seducing him by her mere presence, that of course he wouldn’t miss an easy opportunity.
It was sad enough that when her rants started to slow, and panic at what she expected would happen next started to rise in her face, he would poke another bit of fuel in — “Yeah, but have you read James Baldwin?” — and listen to her mind spin for another fifteen minutes.
“You’re pretty well-read for a civics teacher,” she said. It was the first evening of the track season, hopeful spring unfolding all around them like scarred flesh emerging through a scab. Nola had volunteered to be the manager for the boys’ team, so she could stand next to Charlie with a stopwatch and a clipboard.
He planned to put up with this for exactly one week before he insisted that she go out on the girls’ team; she had the build of killer shot-putter.
“Like, I know most people have heard the name Carson McCullers, but a lot of them don’t even realize she’s a woman,” Nola continued.
“Shut up until you’ve got all the splits for this run,” he said.
She shut up and clicked. “Isaac’s pretty consistently the fastest,” she said after they’d watched the team circle the track five times. “Under ninety seconds, every lap.”
“Excellent,” he said. “Isaac! I want to talk to you. Can you hurdle?”
Later, watching Nola drag hurdles onto the track with obvious enthusiasm, he edited his plan. He’d put up with this for two weeks. Maybe three. Just until he found another manager. He’d have his assistant coach go over shot-put form with her, to assuage his conscience.
It was at the end of the third week when he forgot himself so far as to ask if she wanted a ride home. Nola’s ugly bulldog face fell. Charlie gritted his teeth. “Isaac! You need a ride too!” he barked across the field.
“Coach?” Isaac said, sounding puzzled. He lived two blocks from school.
He gave Isaac the cooler to hold and made him sit in the middle seat. Nola, perking up, asked Isaac if he had ever read any Cormac McCarthy.
“Don’t your parents worry about you?” Charlie asked severely.
Nola responded by taking her septum ring out, rubbing her nose, and putting it back in. “About what?”
Nola wanted to think of the books as evidence that her campaign of seduction was working on Mister Nolan, but she wasn’t exactly sure. Whatever had happened with Mister Kline had not involved cardboard boxes full of books.
She sat at the top of the bleachers, sorting through the box, as Mister Nolan chased his sprinters up and down the far stretch of the track. He hardly looked human when he ran with the blades flashing underneath him. He looked like — a deer. A thing of winter and bones laced with steel.
In the box: Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Winnie-the-Pooh, Anna Karenina, Infinite Jest, The Wind in the Willows, Anansi Boys, The Hunt for Red October, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The last book still had a marker in it, and Nola flipped it open absently at that spot and read. The chapter finished underneath her, and she looked up to watch the deer-man, ice-man, flying over the half-thawed mud of the field through a wash of tears.
“I can’t take all these,” she said at the end of practice. “They’re practically new, all of them. This is like two hundred dollars. In a box.”
Charlie sighs, wiping his face with the edge of his shirt. “I’m not much of a reader, really. I just had a lot of spare time, because of the — ”
“Because of the — ”
“The leg thing,” he says, lifting one blade.
“Sometimes I forget those aren’t your real legs,” she blurted out.
“And yet, funnily enough, I never forget that you’re fifteen,” he said dryly. “Can you get the batons? I’ll give you a ride home.”
She slid the box into the middle of the front seat, the pink aluminum batons balanced on the top, and sat in the passenger seat. Daylight savings’ time flipped into place next weekend; after that all their practices would finish in bright light, not the dim glow of a sun already retreating. The Doughnut rolled to her parents’ house under the yellow glow of sodium lamps. Charlie gave her a thumbs’-up out the window when she clambered out of the car clutching her trove of pages.