by Francine Witte  

It is the hottest August ever, and my skin has turned eraser-pink from the heat. I have forty-three in my first period English class. They are spilling into the hallway, and not one of them is here to learn.

I think about Lou and our late-night coffee dates. How each night I lie and say I have lessons to plan. Last month, when school started, the assistant principal, short sleeves and Bugs Bunny tie, hefted the curriculum into my arms like it was a baby. I never have to think again, I thought.

Each morning, I write an aim on the board. This is where we are going today, class.

Lou asks me each night where we are going. Eight months, he says, holding up his fingers. He opens and closes them, like a yellow traffic light. Soon, he will have to start on his toes. He seems to want a lesson plan from me that I don’t have. No one handed me the curriculum on love.

Suarez, a beefy senior in the first row asks me why I’m even here. ‘Hey, couldn’t you be at the beach, Teach?’ We both smile at the rhyme. I tell him I have rent to pay and credit cards.

‘Ain’t you got no husband?’ he says. I notice the long red scar down the side of his face. I don’t even want to know.

‘Don’t.’ I say. ‘Don’t I have a husband. And no.’

‘I’d marry you.’ He winks. ‘You pretty.’

Lou tells me I’m pretty first thing when I see him. I can be striped or polka dotted, hair up, hair down. I think he is looking at the picture of me from his head. In this picture, we have two, maybe three kids, the kids I already know at 30 I will never have. Lou has names for them just in case. He starts to name them and that’s when I order the pie.

Lou is happy just for the coffee dates, he says. I like to pretend you’re my girlfriend, is what he means.

I tell Suarez, sit down and open your notebook. Write a page about the last time you went to the beach.

‘I don’t go,’ he says, ‘condoms and shit in the sand.’

I imagine Suarez, all sausage toes and seaweed. I am surprised he has another life outside of the class. ‘Don’t curse,’ is what I say.

‘You even got a man?’ he says and suddenly the others are silent and watching. Does coffee count? I want to ask. Does it count that it’s been eight months? ‘Start writing,’ I say.

That night, I tell Lou we are through and he thinks I mean with coffee. ‘Too much caffeine,’ he nods. I tell him to go find himself a life outside this pretend one with me, go out these doors and become real.

He tells me these summer school hours are getting to me. Quit teaching, he says, ‘I make enough.’

‘You aren’t listening,’ I say, which, of course, he doesn’t hear.

‘You need some sleep.’ He pays the check and pats me on the shoulder.

That night, before bed, I check the curriculum. The Aim, it says, is to understand the symbolism in Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ I think of symbolic examples to write on the board, the flag standing for freedom, the dollar sign standing for money, coffee dates standing for love.

Next morning, Suarez’s seat is empty. Cutting, I think, and start to write the aim. I get as far as the y in symbolism when the summer school principal walks in. Seer suckered and Easy Spirit pumps, she settles the class down with her raised hand. She waits, simply waits until they are quiet.

‘It seems,’ she tells them, ‘Evander Suarez has suddenly died.’

Suddenly died, like he cancelled a trip or just decided it would be more convenient not to live.

A girl in the back wants details. She is wearing a halter top, and any other time the principal would remind her about “proper school attire.”

Before the principal can speak, one of the hall boys, no more than his knee in the classroom, yells out, ‘Knife fight, yo.’

The class explodes in chatter. The principal raises her hand again. This time she will wait and wait.

That night I wait for a phone call telling me there’s no school tomorrow. Death of a student, I think. Then I think about Willy Loman.

The whole night passes. No phone call. Life will go on. Life will go on even when Death sticks its knee in out of the hallway. I decide to do a lesson on irony, even if it’s not in the curriculum. That night also, no Lou, no coffee. When I get into bed, I fall asleep right away. Maybe Lou was right. Caffeine was keeping me awake.

When I dream, I am holding a coffee pot. Not a glass carafe, but an old-fashioned stainless-steel percolator, the kind my mother would drag out for company. I am not holding the handle. My hands are wrapped around the metal sides. It is way too hot, but for some reason I can’t let go. I tell it to write about the beach. I tell it to turn into a tea kettle.

Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks, two flash fiction chapbooks, and the full-length poetry collections Café Crazy (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming The Theory of Flesh (Kelsay Books)  Her play, Love is a Bad Neighborhood, was produced in NYC this past December. She lives in NYC.