Take one part ex-bartender, accustomed to handling pugnacious drunks, add ten parts volatile hormone-driven teenagers, and gently stir. Do not shake vigorously. But if you do shake this cocktail, step back. Way back.
It was the first week of June, what Mr. Wiley told his students was the “dangerous season.” He explained that the weather had warmed after a long winter, and everyone, including himself, felt lazy, would have liked to lie under a tree and relax, be with the girl or boy friend…. Anything but study. “So, be tough with yourselves,” he told them, “Keep your nose to the grindstone for just a few more weeks, until vacation time.” He added, “Those few more weeks can mean the difference between success and failure, so don’t cheat yourselves. Work and you’ll be happy when it comes time to leave the books behind for summertime fun. Be strong. If you weaken, you will do poorly and hate yourselves forever.”
Thirty-year old Harold Wiley was in his first year as high school history teacher. Having previously worked as a bartender in a rough neighborhood while attending college at night, Wiley was not accustomed to dealing with adolescents. Almost all his five classes were composed of students who were eager to learn (three parts) as well as reluctant scholars (nine parts) who, however, were willing to allow the teacher’s words to flow over them without fuss. Almost all his classes. But the word almost contains within it a whole universe of implications. One of his classes tended to be boisterous, not particularly interested in the subject. The youngsters in this class were prone to conversing with fellow students while the teacher attempted to elucidate the genesis and outcome of some complex historical events.
One day, this class was more obstreperous than usual. In the midst of Wiley’s unraveling of the tangled web of circumstances that led up to the First World War, the decibel level of student chitchat increased to the point at which Mr. Wiley could not be heard by the few students in the class who were actually interested in the lesson.
The teacher stopped and said to the class, “Come on, kids. Let’s cut out the gabbing. You don’t want to miss important information that will help you with your next exam.”
The class actually became silent and seemed to pay attention. But, as some attention spans were comparable to that of a hummingbird, the conversation and its attendant sound level began to increase once more. At a certain point, Mr. Wiley again addressed the class, “Hey, hey, hey, kids! Quiet down, so you can get the benefit of this lesson.”
They did cease chattering. For a moment. Yet, history repeated itself; student whispering gradually began, then turned into murmurs, and increased rapidly until the noise level became a spirited crescendo. Mr. Wiley gritted his teeth and faced the class, who seemed oblivious of his stopping in mid-sentence to glare at them. The former bartender strained to keep his temper in check, which he managed with only partial success. He thought, Don’t they see me? Or hear me? Am I not right here in front of them? Am I invisible? What the hell?! No longer able to watch the class behaving as though they were at a cocktail party, completely ignoring his presence, he banged his fist on the desk and bellowed, “Hey! Shut up, dammit!”
As soon as the expletive flew off his tongue, Wiley regretted it. Yet it seemed to have the desired effect, one similar to that of electroshock. Almost the entire class sat up straight, kept quiet and, wide-eyed, expectantly focused on the teacher. Once more, that troublesome word almost. Five seconds after Mr. Wiley’s peremptory command had produced a hush over the class and garnered their undivided attention, rebellion struck. Richie, who sat in the front row, broke the silence before Wiley could utter a single word. This student turned and casually spoke in a normal conversational voice to someone two rows behind, shattering the absolute stillness of the classroom.
Richie’s simple statement to another student, “Then I’ll call you about five o’clock,” took on the force of a major announcement, an authoritative proclamation, an emperor’s decree. Wiley was left with his mouth open, cut off just as he was about to impart his golden nuggets of wisdom. Every head in the room turned toward Richie, then back to their teacher. Suspense was registered on their faces. Richie unperturbedly, with complete nonchalance, gazed at the chalkboard. This was an obvious challenge to the teacher’s authority. Wiley knew it. The students knew it. Tension was almost a physical presence that sent vibrations through the stale classroom air.
In his past avatar, Wiley sometimes had to act as his own bouncer if a bar patron, too deeply under the influence of Wiley’s elixirs of bliss, began to cause a disturbance. Or worse yet, threatened to damage the property. Wiley’s liquid refreshments usually produced euphoria in his customers. But in the case of some maladjusted drinkers, engendered belligerence. The teacher’s former persona, his default response for so many years, seized him. He felt his face burn, his guts churn with rage. Wiley did not like, to put it mildly, having to interrupt his teaching because of disciplinary problems. His fists clenched, he glared at Richie and exploded, “Hey! You want a punch in the mouth?!”
Richie immediately countered with, “When?”
Mr. Wiley was perplexed for a moment but knew he could not ignore this challenge to his authority, to his manhood. The entire class sat spell-bound, fascinated by this confrontation. This clash of wills. Among so many considerations racing through the fledgling teacher’s head was the thought, If only they would be that fascinated with history. This thought flashed through his mind with the speed of a lightning bolt and was replaced instantaneously by the answer to Richie’s defiant single-word question.
“Today, 3:30,” he snarled.
“Where?” Richie sounded confident, his jaw firmly set.
For the rest of the period there was no more conversation among the students. The stunned class gave its rapt attention to the teacher, who was pacing to and fro at the head of the class like a caged lion. He forced himself to relay his lesson to this somewhat traumatized class as he marched back and forth, jaw muscles working, fists clenched. As the school day wore on, Mr. Wiley’s thought processes shifted. The white-hot anger and aggressiveness blazing in his chest gradually cooled and was replaced by the creeping realization that he had placed himself in an untenable position. The reddish haze through which he viewed the classroom slowly changed in color like the sky at sunset: from blood red, to scarlet, to crimson, to deep purple, to black, unremitting black.
He forced himself to take stock of what had just happened. In front of the entire class, he had made an appointment for a physical confrontation with a member of that class. The reformed bartender/bouncer congratulated himself on his self-restraint. After all, he hadn’t swung a fist into the annoying student’s jaw right there in class. His congratulatory mood lasted all of two seconds. He realized that no matter how this incident might end, the results would be unpleasant, beyond unpleasant. In fact, merely unpleasant would be a welcome outcome, compared to his present situation. He would gladly settle for unpleasant. Wiley mentally reviewed the possible outcomes this affair could have as well as their repercussions on him.
- He could simply fail to show up for the projected combat. He immediately struck that from the list of possibilities. If he did not appear, he would be labeling himself a coward and could never regain the respect of his students. He would be unable to stand in front of them and teach. Or try to teach. That “solution” was a non-solution. It could not even be considered. Therefore, no matter what the final results would be, he would be there at the appointed time and place and let the chips — or teeth — fall where they might.
- Possible outcome number one became an impossible outcome. It had to be struck from the list of possibilities. It did not exist. It was outcome zero, so that this “second” in Wiley’s calculations, was now moved up to number one. Logically, this meant that he and Richie were definitely, inexorably, implacably, doomed to fight. Wiley then pondered the possible consequences of this unpromising scenario.
- He, Harold Wiley, would beat the tar out of this thorn in his pedagogical side, this fly in his instructional ointment. Richie’s behavior was a challenge to Wiley’s authority. More to the point, it was a threat to his chosen career. If this physical clash came to pass, the teacher would be fired and with this event on his record, would never again be allowed to teach anywhere in the civilized world. And he did not speak any of the languages of the uncivilized world. He would not be able to pursue his new profession which he loved so dearly. Wiley would have to reverse engines and tend bar and bounce pugnacious drunks. In addition, the boy’s parents would no doubt sue him for any physical damages as well as trauma to their son’s self-image. They might even claim their son’s self-esteem, lovingly inculcated and stroked into their little darling from kindergarten to the present, had been destroyed. Or at least, severely damaged.
- On the other hand, if this high school senior beat him, which was a consideration, he conceded, the teacher would lose respect in the eyes of his students. He would be disgraced in their view. Richie would be the alpha male, and Wiley would definitely be a beta, maybe even a gamma. He would lack all authority in any class he might teach. Furthermore, even if he lost the fight, he would still be in trouble with the school district and would probably lose his job simply by being the authority figure responsible for the existence of the physical altercation.
It boiled down to this: He had created a lose-lose situation for himself. Unlike his troglodyte ancestors, winning this fight would be losing. Harold Wiley would not become the leader of his tribe. He was subject to the multiple authorities of the local board of education, city ordinances, state law, perhaps the federal authorities, and that all-powerful force: public-freaking-opinion!
All this hammered away at his consciousness during the entire school day. The question that kept banging against his brain like a pneumatic drill was: How can this end well? How can this possibly end well? What about my teaching career?
He could think of no possible way on this planet — in this solar system, in the entire incalculably vast sidereal universe — that the position into which his testosterone-fueled righteous indignation had driven him could end well for him. No way! His automatic response triggered by another male’s challenge reached him genetically from the dawn of humanity and beyond. Had he lived a million years earlier, he most likely would have instantaneously bashed in Richie’s skull with his club and moved on. If his evolution had trodden a different path over the eons, and he were a 21st-Century African mountain gorilla, his reaction would have been similar. Nevertheless, he was not a cave-dwelling Neanderthal. He was not an ape. He was a present-day human being, a totally evolved member of the homo sapiens species, and in addition, a supposedly civilized product of Western Civilization.
After all, he had put a check on his basic instincts and, facing a class of thirty students (thirty witnesses!), he was able to rein in his primitive impulses to some extent, and had merely made an appointment for the fight. How civilized was that? He congratulated himself again. He was absolutely determined, however, to go through with his threat. Harold Q. Wiley III never had backed down, never would back down, never will back down. Never! Never-ever! No backer-downer he! Or was it down-backer? No matter. He and Richie would go at it no matter what the results might be. It was a matter of honor. He simply had to go through with it. And whatever would happen, would happen. What will be will be. For a split second, the image of an old movie he had seen on TCM: Doris Day singing Que será será incongruously flashed through his mind. Anyway, fate would continue in its inescapable course.
Mr. Wiley, true to his word, was seated at his desk at 3:00, averaging class grades. It took him longer than usual to do this work. I can’t average these damned figures; I’m too pumped up for what’s coming next. Yet, I don’t want to waste time, to just sit here and stare at the clock. Come on, Richie, let’s do this and be done with it.
At 3:20 he caught snatches of whispering in the hallway outside his home room. He could not make out the conversation except for one barely audible question: “Are you really going to fight him?” The answer was completely inaudible.
A minute later, a student from the same class entered the room and said, “Mr. Wiley, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, Phil. Fire away.”
“Well…” The boy hesitated. “Are you really going to fight Richie?”
Wiley put a hard look on his face. In a very serious tone with an edge of menace, he spoke. “Yes. I said I would, and I’m a man of my word.”
The student’s next question amused the teacher almost as much as it surprised him. “Can I watch?”
Wiley had to strain to control a sudden impulse to guffaw. Then, he realized what the subject of the whispered conversation in the hall between Phil and Richie had been about. He also understood that Phil was sent to feel him out. Wiley thought, Richie is worried, maybe more than I am. I hadn’t thought of that possibility. Great. I’ll increase the pressure on him. It could scare him, dissuade him from wanting to go through with it. If not, at least his fear will give me an advantage in fighting him. To hell with consequences. To hell with the board of education. I’ll press my advantage to the hilt. Damn the damn torpedoes, full speed ahead!
Wiley peered at Richie’s friend, anger flashing from his suddenly narrowed eyes, beaming death rays at Phil. He again set his face in stone, attempting to look like George Washington’s image carved into Mount Rushmore, and growled, biting off each word slowly and deliberately. “Watch?! Are you joking? Watch?! No, Phil, no one is going to watch this. Richie and I are going to go for a ride in my car to somewhere where we won’t be interrupted. And only one of us is coming back!” He banged his fist on the desk, making the books, as well as Phil, jump. Phil had metamorphosed, in Wiley’s estimation, from ambassador to spy, to potential audience. Maybe the boy would become a fight promoter one day.
Phil’s mouth dropped open. He mumbled, “Okay. ‘Bye,” and dashed out of the room and into the corridor, eyes wide open, fairly panting with excitement. Seconds later, Mr. Wiley detected another whispered conversation. The only words that Wiley could make out were Phil’s. He thought he heard him hiss, “Why not?”
Damn it! The little creep was trying to push his so-called friend into fighting! He was Iago to Richie’s Othello. Sort of. This was followed by the single word hissed in a questioning tone: “Chicken?”
Good sign, Wiley thought. He looked at his watch: 3:28. He continued to work on his grade book, this time with excitement. The appointed time, 3:30, finally arrived, but Mr. Wiley would not leave yet. I’m not going to leave at 3:30 on the dot. No, no. I want to look confident, as though I crave combat, as though I’m thirsty for blood, Richie’s blood. Just in case any of the students are paying attention to this ridiculous mess I made for myself. I’ll stay fifteen minutes more and then leave, calmly, in charge of the situation. Nay, victorious! The teacher had to strain in order to resist the urge to leap from his chair and beat his breast, a la King Kong.
When the wall clock showed 3:45, he stood, heaved a sigh of relief and thought, Thank God! He realized this was the culmination to this stressful day he had not the imagination to foresee. It was a gift from heaven. He stuffed his textbooks and grade book into his attaché case and practically danced out of the room light as the lint at the bottom of his sock drawer, beaming. He would not lose his employment, would not be sued, would not be barred from his new profession. And he would still be respected. And feared. Fear could be a good thing, if not overdone. Did Machiavelli say that?
Apparently, word of this impending drama had spread among the student body. As he proceeded down the corridor toward the exit, he overheard one student, who was in none of his classes nor in his homeroom, stage-whisper to another, “That’s the guy that’s supposed to fight Richie.”
Wiley imagined himself, in leather chaps, cowboy boots and cowboy-hat, six-shooters hanging from his belt, striding down the dusty single street of a town, spurs jingling defiantly, tumbleweed rolling along in front of him. The few inhabitants of this lawless frontier town, frozen in awe on the raised wooden sidewalks, gaped in veneration at Two-Gun Wiley, former gunslinger turned Sheriff. The townspeople whispered to each other, “That there’s the hombre what’s a-goin’ to shoot it out with Ragin’ Richie.” One wizened geezer, white whiskers like porcupine quills, stopped at the entrance to the Thirsty Gullet Saloon & Dancehall, spat chewing-tobacco juice on to the wooden planks, and announced, “Yep, if Richie-the-Kid got the cojones to show up, that is.” He pushed his way past the swinging doors and sidled up to the bar.
The next morning, Mr. Wiley decided to capitalize on his good fortune. He would strengthen his upper hand. He saw Richie in the hallway talking to a few other students. Wiley strode up to Richie, flashed him a big smile and quietly said, “Hey, Richie, what happened?”
Richie looked down at the floor and sheepishly explained, “Oh, I had to help my mother with the shopping. She needed me to help her carry the bundles.” He paused a second, shrugged, and in a very apologetic, subdued tone, added, “But if you want to meet me today….” His voice trailed off.
Wiley dismissively flapped his hand backward, and said, “Ahh…! Forget it.”
Richie looked relieved. Wiley smiled and marched to his homeroom, thinking of another old film, starring John Wayne, humming the “Marines’ Hymn”: From the Halls of Montezu-u-u-ma….
After coming out of homeroom, en route to his first class, Wiley once more ran into Richie in the hallway. The student was with Anne, a girl in the same class. Wiley greeted them both with a “Good morning,” and smiled. He noticed that Anne’s eyes were bloodshot.
Wiley said, “Anne, why are your eyes red? Are you okay?”
She whined, “I couldn’t sleep last night.”
Wiley was genuinely concerned for his students’ welfare, students who didn’t challenge his authority. He felt fatherly toward her. He said, “I’m sorry to hear that, Anne. Any reason in particular?”
“Yes.” She looked up at Mr. Wiley. “You and Richie,” her voice was mournful. “You both should know better.” She hesitated a bare moment. “Especially you, Mr. Wiley, you’re a teacher.” Her eyes began to tear.
Wiley was starting to put two and two together. It struck him that Anne must be Richie’s girlfriend, and Richie felt he had to look macho and take up Wiley’s challenge. Naturally, he thought, Richie had to be a man, had to accept my challenge. His girlfriend was there. It was a natural reaction. He remembered that T.E. Lawrence, when asked why men go to war, answered, “Because the women are watching.” The teacher suddenly felt abashed. This high school girl has more sense than I do, he thought. That’s a hell of a thing! I’m a damned fool. I need to tell her she’s right, because she is, but at the same time not excuse Richie for being disruptive.
“Anne, you’re perfectly right. I’m sorry I lost my temper.” Then in a semi-jocular tone he added, “The next time Richie does something like that,” Wiley looked straight at Richie, “I’ll do things the correct way: I’ll just have him expelled.” Then he chuckled. Richie smiled.
At noon, Wiley was on hall duty. He saw a boys’ physical education class filing out of the gym. Richie came out and when he saw Mr. Wiley, put his fists up in a boxing stance and danced and weaved his way toward him. When he was closer, he put his hands down, smiled, and said, “Mr. Wiley, you were right. I was out of line and I’m sorry.” He extended his hand toward Wiley, who clasped it.
Wiley said, “I was out of line too, Richie. I really am ashamed of myself. Let’s just forget about the whole thing.”
A wave of fatherly affection for the kid washed over Wiley. And he thought how pure dumb luck had saved him from disaster. By sheer luck, his teaching career was briefly interrupted, not ended. He had lost his temper, and as a result placed himself in what had seemed an impossible situation. He hadn’t been able to imagine how things could possibly end well. Yet, despite his poorly controlled behavior, everything had turned out satisfactorily. He promised himself, I am never, absolutely never, going to lose my temper with a student again. I’m an evolved, civilized man, and I need to set an example for these kids.
He had always wondered why, when he tended bar, some customers, imitating James Bond, insisted he stir their martinis rather than shake them. They maintained that using that procedure the vermouth dissolves better, resulting in a smoother drink, one that even leaves a better taste in the mouth. Some went as far as to claim that even if you have too many cups of kindness, you won’t incur a hangover. His bartender experience made him take that claim with a grain of salt, as with a Margarita. Wiley knew that those drinkers just wanted to feel like James Bond. The former bartender thought that whatever advantage the stirred martini has over the shaken one, stirring really does work better than shaking in personal relations. And professional ones.
Clark Zlotchew is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish and literature in Spanish language, Emeritus. Only three of Zlotchew’s 17 books consist of his fiction: Two espionage/thriller novels and an award-winning collection of his short stories. Newer work of his has appeared in Crossways Literary Magazine, Baily’s Beads, The Fictional Café and many other literary journals in the U.S., Australia, U.K., Germany, South Africa, India, and Ireland from 2016 through 2021. Earlier fiction of his has appeared in his Spanish versions in Latin America. Over 70 scholarly articles of his have appeared in Spanish and in English in learned journals on five continents. www.clarkzlotchew.com | Facebook