by Claire Hopple
The boy sat in the hallway, staring. His snot formed a tributary into his open mouth. He kicked at the air. Ranger watched him fidget until the principal walked out of the front office.
"Mr. Keys?" she smiled.
"Yes," he said, shaking her hand, which was much like laying a raw slab of steak on the grill.
"I'm Mrs. Plimpton, the head principal. It's a pleasure to meet you," she said.
She smoothed her hands over her blazer primly and then began her tour of the school.
This school: his last school. It was just as well. He couldn't handle taking the bus again. Those hand pulls like a line of nooses waiting for necks. Plus, technology had changed things too much. The satisfying click of the next slide had been replaced with the impotent click of the mouse over the play button on the computer file. He longed for his Carousel 5400, each 35 mm slide placed upside down and backwards in order to display correctly on screen. The sole glow of the projector's eye to him the purest form of sight. It now lived in a box in his basement next to his Stairmaster.
Before his presentations, Ranger always turned off the lights himself as a way of mentally preparing. He never remembered turning the switches off and on anymore, in gymnasiums, auditoriums, even in his own home. This secretly terrified him. He assumed it was because he turned switches so often that it was no longer memorable, some sort of brain shortcut. But in his 67 years, he has done many activities repeatedly, which means that soon his whole life would be as unrecallable as the flicking of a switch. This had ultimately led him to his decision to retire.
The assembly before the last one was at a nearby middle school. The music teacher made an announcement before his presentation about a fundraiser for Kenyan refugees, but the middle school brains were cumulonimbus romances, stratus wisps of narcissism, and no one even listened to the teacher. Middle schools were his least favorite.
Faye had moved out the day before the middle school assembly, which was fine. She would talk incessantly of children, but not of having her own. Some people treated dogs like children, but Faye treated children like, well, not exactly dogs but some kind of pet: she would find them adorable at distances and want them around in certain ideal settings as accessories, and then she would pat them on their heads in farewell.
Right before she left, she told him, "I don't want to cry because I would be crying about the wrong things." He wanted to see her again, not because he thought they should still be together, but so that he could find out what those things were.
Ranger had never married and Faye was his longest relationship. Growing up with a twin had forced him into unreasonable standards for companionship. They had participated in a twin study as children to make some extra cash but the results had been inconclusive. Not all the dependent variables had been addressed. Or was it the independent variables? He could never remember.
Ranger's twin Roger had won the lottery a few years ago, and the following week had been seriously injured in an accident on the interstate, ultimately becoming a quadriplegic. Ranger thought this was somehow worse than if his brother had died. At least if he had passed away Ranger could still relate to him. The lottery winnings covered all of the medical expenses and provided a sizeable, handicap-accessible mansion for Roger and his wife.
"So your website said you have several different types of presentations," said Mrs. Plimpton.
"Yes, depending on the age range and audience size, I can cover National Parks, various environmental causes and animal adaptations."
"Basically how fish, birds, bugs, and other species adapt to their respective environments; gathering food, self-defense, even how they camouflage themselves."
She showed him the joint gymnasium/auditorium last.
"There's been a surge of new jobs at the local plant and a lot of engineers and their young families are moving here, so our classrooms have become overcrowded," she explained, standing in front of the gym doors like a sentry. "This forced us into sectioning off the gym. I hope you understand. We should have a nice spot cleared before your show tomorrow."
She opened the doors and he peeked in on what looked like large cubicles. Children's voices echoed shrilly like he imaged the gym whistle used to.
He thanked her for the tour. On his way out, he overheard a tutor working with a young student, teaching that "someone" was one word and "no one" was two. A child whose constructs were probably still drawn with thick, simple lines. A child who could not possibly understand how the one word could be in a different category from the other, not knowing that "no one" is severed from its counterpart. The tutor was growing frustrated and Ranger could feel electrical pulses of anger emanating from the open classroom door. Her frustration was some kind of feeling directed at the child, albeit negative, but that was a start.
The next morning, he waited at the bus stop in the rain. He knew there were different types of rain and that the types all tried to communicate different memories, ideas, places. This particular rain felt like Boston, though he was in Pittsburgh. It was chilly, brooding, almost ominous without striking fear, and with a sense of history. Substantial and ancient in its humidity. Like yellowed pages and sweaters kept in a chest in a forgotten room.
This Boston-type rain reminded him that he used to schedule assemblies nationally, used to actually see places like Boston. Now he just covered western PA. No, he corrected himself, later this afternoon he would be retired. He could go anywhere. He could go somewhere.
Ranger was safe in the gymnasium's fetid, sticky embrace. Mrs. Plimpton had just introduced him to the new assistant principal. The assistant principal was even wearing a nametag. She was the only one wearing a nametag.
He started setting up, connecting wires, sipping from his water bottle, when he was handed a mug of instant coffee by CHERYL LAWRENCE, ASST. PRINCIPAL. Pal was underlined. He assumed Plimpton was behind this. All of this. The mug had a child's finger-painted handprint in the school's colors. The other side had the school's mascot, a dragon, with the slogan, "Educating tomorrow's leaders today" below its fire-breathing mouth.
CHERYL had eyes with pupils and irises indistinguishable in color, so that Ranger didn't know exactly where she was looking. It gave her an inhuman, morbid appearance. Other than her eyes, she looked ordinary.
Kids shuffled in and found their seats. He switched off the lights and opened his slideshow file titled "preserving_habitats.mp4." His encyclopedic voice rolled on into the dark room and it was all muscle memory from there.
A few teachers came up to thank him after it was over. One remarked that it was a large improvement over the last assembly, which featured a nutritional opera starring a stalk of broccoli and a falsettoed banana.
He saw Faye in the back. She made her way up to the stage.
"I didn't want to miss your last show," she said.
That was one thing about her, her thoughtfulness. He would miss that. He could use more of that, learn from it. She showed him a picture of her family reunion, one of their last outings together. Her nephew was seated in a high chair at a table full of adults, Ranger and Faye included. The table was littered with bottles.
"Look at him playing with all the adults," she mused, and for a moment Ranger thought she was talking about him.
Claire Hopple's fiction is published or forthcoming in Bluestem, Timber Journal, Quarter After Eight, Noctua Review, Limestone Journal and others. She lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee. More at clairehopple.com.