Advent

Rob Roensch

 

I have lost the ability to feel truth in the story of the resurrection yet, as I made my way up the aisle after the upper-school liturgy, I felt like I was still inside the sound of the whole school singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The song was unaccompanied because the usual pianist, Karen Gill, the chair of our music department, was not present, because her mother is dying. During the song, I had looked up into the dark overhead in the cavernous auditorium and become absorbed in the way candlelight gives darkness currents.

In the hall afterwards, the flood of maroon-sweatered students was like a sea and I was afloat in it, until I heard my own thinking.

I thought, you don’t merely feel peaceful; you feel high. How could that be?

I thought, perhaps you are affected by the quality of the day, perhaps the mystery of the ceremony. But it was only a thought. I knew I was high. I had experienced the feeling before, as a younger and not-so innocent. But not since. Of course I hadn’t smoked a joint on the way to school that morning. As a rule I never even ate or drank anything in the morning, except for coffee.

But then I saw like a revelation: there had to have been something chemical in the cupcake that was in the faculty dining room that I should not have eaten, that I ate. It was the only possibility.

As I made my way directly into the empty dull white box of the cafeteria to investigate, I felt like I could feel the streaky-clean texture of the floor through the soles of my shoes, even though I knew I could not.

As I opened the door into the separate faculty dining room I spotted again the lidless plastic container of cupcakes next to the sink, like an offering. And I saw that looking into the turquoise swirls in the wallpaper above the sink was like looking down at a neighborhood’s swimming pools from an airplane, and I saw that the turquoise was the most beautiful color I had ever seen.

I knew it was not truly the most beautiful color I had ever seen.

I picked up the container.

There were still ten of the original twelve cupcakes left; so only one other cupcake had been eaten so far, which was unusual for baked goods in that room. Perhaps so few had yet been claimed because of a combination of so many believing or practicing Catholics refusing other food before communion and the early hour. It was possible, even probable, that the other person who had taken a cupcake was planning to save it for later. The cupcakes had been more than appetizing, and still were. I would never bake something like that for myself. They were a straightforward temptation: silver wrappers; brownie-dense chocolate cake; piped-on vanilla frosting the color of fresh milk.

Clearly the first thing to do, before discovering the culprit and bestowing the necessary punishment, was to protect my colleagues from the cupcakes. I tipped the container of perfect cupcakes into the trash can just as the door opened.

It was the administrative assistant from the main office. She has always reminded me of my own expertly strict sophomore English teacher. She was wearing tan slacks, a Christmas sweater, pearl earrings.

I was caught, I felt immediately, as was only just. I had, after all, eaten the cupcake of my own free will, in a moment of perhaps weakness, and enjoyed it.

But she didn’t say anything. Her usual slight frown remained a slight frown as she continued on her way to the coffee maker.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Hello,” she said.

Either she hadn’t noticed my actions, or she assumed that I had determined that the cupcakes had gone stale, or I had accrued to myself enough justified authority that my actions, unless particularly egregious, did not need to be questioned. I was in the clear as long as I didn’t say anything else.

“I just threw out the cupcakes,” I heard myself saying.

“Yes?” she said, more out of politeness than interest, half-turned to me as she poured decaf into a styrofoam cup. I knew I should stop talking.

“They were,” I said, considered my next words for an unknown number of seconds. “Very old.”

“I prefer a slice of poundcake,” she said. “I don’t like too much frosting.”

“A fair position,” I said. I knew I should stop talking. “You don’t happen to know who brought them, do you?” I said. She eyed the plastic container I still held in one hand. I offered it out to her; she quite sensibly did not take it.

“I don’t,” she said.

“Excellent,” I said. “Well.” I didn’t know where to put the container. I held it with two hands, like a steering wheel.

“Have a good rest of your day,” she said, as if I was behaving normally, and turned away with her coffee.

I felt and heard the rush-puff of air forced out as the door closed behind her. A door, I thought, is just a failed wall. I inserted the container into the trash can with the cupcakes.

Here we are, I thought, then heard that I had said it out loud.

I knew I should have been going over my notes for my 2nd period Great Gatsby lecture. I told myself, there’s nothing to worry about. You know that book like your own hands. You can do it without any preparation, in any state of mind. After all, at this moment you are handling yourself as well as could be expected. Respectably. Responsibly. Furthermore: what if someone with a less controlled imagination has eaten that other cupcake? What if that other cupcake has not yet been eaten, but has been selected and saved for a mid-morning snack? You have an obligation to try to locate and dispose of it, knowing what you know.

I pushed open the door out of the faculty dining room and nearly knocked over Principal McGuirk. He stopped short; his head vibrated back and forth twice in a walrus spasm before he collected himself.

“In a hurry this morning?” he said. I would have apologized.

“Big mysteries afoot!” I said, and I could hear right away what I’d said was ridiculous, but also knew that it would do no good to try to fix it by developing an explanation or saying anything at all. I continued on my way, congratulated myself on my restraint. “It’s a significant morning!” I said. And, then, whispering, to myself: “Be quiet.” I could feel Principal McGuirk’s eyes following me across the cafeteria. He usually let me be. We understood and respected each other’s roles in the hierarchy of the school. I noticed I was walking directly on a line of shine in the linoleum. The light was slippery. It became very important to button together my sport coat as I walked, though the coat was slightly small, and I never buttoned it. It was like trying to sew closed a tear in fabric with fingers made of thread.

Soon enough I was in the hall in my still unbuttoned sport coat.

I could see that across the lobby in the auditorium, where the entire school, teachers and student body, had minutes ago been together sitting quietly, there was now only darkness and empty space. I could smell the white smoke of snuffed candles.

I was reminded of the church of my youth. Its front doors were always unlocked. My friends and I would sneak in there some nights just because we could. My dear friends, all long since moved away. I could still see in my mind the stained-glass windows dark and gleaming.

“Are you okay?” I heard, and I turned to see MaryAnne O’Malley, a bright, bright-ly braced junior standing at my side and a step behind. She took another little step back.

“Miss O’Malley,” I said. “Thank you. I was lost in contemplation.”

“Can I ask you about the Hamlet test?”

“I would enjoy nothing more thoroughly than a question about Hamlet,” I said, not with my usual dry sarcasm but in the imitation of dry sarcasm because at the instant I did want to hear a question about Hamlet.

“Is the ghost supposed to be real?” she said.

“Is the ghost supposed to be real,” I said, considered. It was the sort of question that often generated from me a series of further questions suggesting paths toward a fuller and more correct articulation of a text’s implications. But at the moment no paths forward presented themselves, let alone questions pointing the way. “I don’t know,” I said, nodded once at an angle in imitation of how I usually concluded student interactions.

“Okay,” she said, accepting the signal.

“Life and death,” I continued, but she had already turned to go. I saw she was carrying the bathroom pass from Biology, a cartoon microscope the size of a small child, cut out of painted plywood.

I, too, had to be on my way.

It was deep enough into the period that the halls were empty and the classroom doors were closed. Voices buzzed behind doors, industrious, contented. I stopped at the first classroom door to look in the little window in search of the missing cupcake, perhaps resting on a teacher’s desk. It was a math class, attentive students in graph-paper-neat rows with open notebooks, and the teacher’s desk, from what I could see, was empty except for a few textbooks and a closed laptop.

I realized I was looking too intently, face pressed too close to the glass, when I registered the expression of the boy in the front corner—he was wide-eyed with terror. To him, I was a looming vampire, looking for him.

I continued along the hall of math classrooms, resolved to be more discreet.

I also realized I had no plan. I considered: if I spotted the cupcake, should I interrupt class? Simply squeeze the cupcake inedible in my palm and then offer an explanation, perhaps food poisoning? Or should I feign the onset of diabetic shock for need of sugar and then squish the thing whole into my mouth?

It seemed sensible, for a moment. But then I saw I’d soon be twice as high, smelling the wind through the windows. There was nothing for it but to wait for the moment and find the path then. It was terrible to know I could not prepare.

In none of the math rooms did I spot any trace of the cupcake in question. I did observe that the boredom of the child learning math is different from the child learning literature—broadly speaking, teacher and student are more accepting of boredom in math class. If we grant that the philosophies of math can be difficult to master, all must acknowledge that the subject is tangible, measurable, at least present in the room with them. The bored student in math stares at least into the numbers on the page; the bored student in English stares out the window. The most frustrating part of teaching literature is knowing that unengaged students do have intelligences that are engaged by other narratives, other images, other questions. When teaching a perfect poem fails, it’s not the poem that fails; it’s their fault for not being able to discipline their imaginations, and it’s your fault for not being able to reach them.

It was all, I knew suddenly and completely, my fault.

I realized that standing on the other side of the door was the math teacher, looking through the window of the door at me with the exact look I had received from my own sophomore English teacher upon being caught daydreaming during a sentence diagramming demonstration. She pointed a new finger of yellow chalk at me, angrily mouthed “Can I help you?”

“Merry Christmas,” I said, out loud, nodded as sharply as I could, was unable to stop myself from adding a neat salute, then continued on my way, as if I had somewhere to go, and then, I saw, I did.

I was walking toward the sound of someone playing the piano. A watery, melancholy piece, maybe Chopin. Such a different voice from the bleating and stomping of the marches and arrangements of popular songs I more typically overheard. The music rooms were down a side hall that was dark at that early hour.

I followed the sound.

It was coming from the band practice room; the door was cracked open, so I swept it open all the way.

Karen Gill, the piano accompanist with the dying mother who had been absent at the liturgy, was sitting at the piano, her back to the door, playing. The florescent overhead lights were off; the overcast morning daylight from the windows was tentative. She was not dressed in her usual conservative floral flowing dress, but sweatpants, an oversized red flannel shirt. She swayed back and forth as she played, like she was keeping her balance on a ship at sea. The sound of the piano was confidently resonant, but also overlined by a thin chiming sound it took me a few seconds to understand was her closed-mouth expert humming inside the melody. I understood her absolute absorption in the beauty of the music. I saw she must have also been high. She’d been taking care of her mother; she had access to her mother’s medicine. She’d brought the cupcakes as a way to share her grief. She’d herself had eaten the missing one.

The only other explanation was that I was not high at all, and that something was happening in me.

I could have turned to go immediately and prosecuted the matter later when my faculties had fully returned, but I remained. Perhaps today it was not my responsibility to keep order, but rather to acknowledge an impending loss, to accept my minor share of the burden. I closed my eyes, and listened.

It took me some seconds to understand that she had stopped playing, and to open my eyes. I saw that she had turned to see me, and was regarding me with a confused expression, like she had forgotten where she was. I knew the feeling.

“How is your mother doing?” I said.

“She’s the same,” she said. “It’s in the hands of God.”

“Ah,” I said, nodded once. Nodded again.

“It’s nice of you to ask,” she said.

“I was glad to hear you play.”

“Thank you. It’s always calm here, in the mornings. Do you mind, if I continue?”

“Please. I am due to give a lecture shortly in any case.” And she nodded as I had nodded and turned back to the piano. She let her fingers hover over the keys for a second, another second. Then I was holding my breath. I realized she hadn’t been wearing her glasses; she usually wore them around her neck on a silver chain.

I was in the hall again when I heard the music leaking out through the crack in the closing door. Then the thick heavy door drifted closed, and I couldn’t hear the music, but I could hear the music.

***

At the beginning of my 2nd period Gatsby lecture, I talked about standing alone on a dock and looking out at a green light across the bay, believing one could reach out and grasp it, if one wanted it enough. “One way of defining the American Dream,” I said, “is the idea that if you want something, and work for it, you can have it. That’s the optimistic part of it. The pessimistic part of it. Or, one could argue, the sad part. Is that attainment does not assuage the desire. You are always wishing for something you don’t have, so even if you attain a measure of success, there is always another green light, always another memory of Daisy. The novel is constructed in such a way that we as readers are able to both view this desire with a critical eye as well as feel its power. We are doomed to want most what we cannot have, or what we have lost.”

“What do you wish for that you don’t have?” said one of my students. It was not usual for a student to ask a question in the middle of a lecture because I made it a practice to follow so closely my meticulously compared notes as to only leave space for student interruptions at certain appropriate moments. I came to understand I’d been staring out the window for five full seconds. Outside the sky was a bone-gray and the bare trees were traced in a barely perceptible electricity; it was about to start snowing.

“What don’t I have?” I said, turning back to my student. His pencil was well-gnawed; it floated on the pale-blue lined puddle of an empty page in his notebook. He glanced down to his notebook where my eyes were resting, reached for his pencil as if to make a note, thought twice, tapped the pencil with a fingertip, considered, and the pencil bobbed, slightly, in the liquid of the page. Very faint pale-blue rings of ripples bloomed, drifted. I was quite aware that the paper had not become water. What was left was a wish in that moment for the paper to be water that was so strong I could almost believe that the paper was water. The pencil was floating on the paper, against the current.

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Rob Roensch is the author of The Wildflowers of Baltimore (Salt, 2012) and The World and the Zoo (Outpost19, 2020).