Mr. Skull and the Russian

Tasha Coryell

She was nothing like they thought she would be when they went to visit her in Russia. It was to be expected, of course. She was in Russia, had lived there for the entirety of her unclaimed existence. But the pictures of her hadn’t suggested that she would be anything like she was.

They had two children already. They weren’t trying to solve anything. He was a math teacher and after school a football coach for the junior varsity team. If he knew how to do anything it was find solutions and tackle problems.

His name was Mr. Skull. Maybe that’s why he decided to adopt a special needs child from Russia. A skeletal head left to its own devices would never adopt a child from Russia.

Several months previous, a member of the senior varsity football team, a sophomore, a real gifted guy, the kind who would’ve gotten a full ride to a D1 school and maybe even gone pro, was charged with the of raping two women. On both occasions, he had allegedly broken into the homes of the women he violated late at night. Mr. Skull didn’t want to say that it was worse that he had broken into the homes and had not simply committed the acts on the streets, but there was a level of deliberation included in a break-in that made him feel uncomfortable.

He and his wife, Mrs. Skull, had been talking about adoption before the arrest. She worked for a nonprofit. She had come to all his D3 football games in college and that was important to him. If someone can sit and watch a D3 football game they can do almost anything.

The most egregious allegation that came out during the arrest of the football player was that one of the violations had occurred in front of the victim’s four year old son. Mr. Skull imagined the child standing there, wearing the same rocket ship pajama bottoms he himself had worn as a child. Mr. Skull had never witnessed a rape or been violated in any way. He’d had a good childhood and had gotten good grades and been involved in many after school activities including year round sports and math team. He did not know why he thought of his rocket ship pajamas at that particular moment.

Mr. Skull had started balding at a young age and since then had been shaving the remains of his hair. The best party joke that ever existed was his head. His wife was blonde. She had put on some weight since they had gotten married. That was normal. So had he. Muscle doesn’t really turn to fat. The body is not capable of magic, but it seemed this way. He couldn’t lift the things he used to. He couldn’t pummel man after man to the ground.

His favorite feature of his wife were her toenails. They were small and neatly trimmed like pearls of the feet. He was not above sucking on them, cherishing the delicacy of her bones. Mr. Skull’s own toenails were filled with fungus, his toes broken and crooked from years of football.

There were rumors that the senior varsity coaches had known about the rapes. That the boy had bragged about these occasions in the locker room. According to the rumors, the coaches had not reported him to the police because “boys said all sorts of things in the locker room” and because “they were having a great football season.” Mr. Skull hadn’t known about the rape, but after the boy was charged he began hearing rumors about the kid showing off his dick in the back of various classrooms. It was too much for a child to both be gifted at football and have a big penis.

Mr. Skull had been popular in high school. Everyone called him “Skull.” Mr. Skull was popular as a teacher too. He was well liked amongst his fellow teachers and his students gave him good evaluations. He was offered the position of teaching the gifted students, but he declined saying that he would rather teach those in need. Math made sense to him in a way that other things didn’t make sense to him. He wanted to teach people about numbers.

They had received pictures of the child up for adoption. She had some special needs. They examined the background of the pictures, carefully looking for any sign of abuse or neglect. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t take an abused child, not that at all, but they wanted to know what they were getting themselves into. They were pleased when her surroundings were clean. They commented on how she wasn’t smiling in any of the pictures, but maybe it was a cultural thing. They didn’t know very much about Russia. They told themselves they would go for an exploratory visit. They would try not to get too attached to anything. But Mrs. Skull had already hung the pictures of the child on the refrigerator next to crude drawings done by the biological Skull children.

On the airplane to Russia, Mr. Skull and his family were served a warmed chicken breast with a variety of vegetables on the side and a small roll with a little tray of butter. Mr. Skull’s son, Thomas Skull, declared that he liked airplane food and did not know why people complained about it so much. Tommy Skull had been born after they stopped serving food on domestic flights. He did not remember 9/11. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and wore a neon green soccer shirt with the word “SKULL” written on the back.

Emma Skull, the littlest of the Skulls, dropped her roll on the floor and cried until Mr. Skull handed over his roll to her even though he had wanted to eat it. It was important to make sacrifices for one’s children.

If nothing else, they told each other, it would be a cultural experience for the children. It was important for their children to be cultured. Mr. Skull did not speak Russian, but had purchased a dictionary of Russian words. He studied words like “привет” and “пожалуйста” and “спасибо.” Mr. Skull liked that the letters looked like symbols. Symbols were a thing that he understood until he tried to make them come out of his mouth and then he fumbled over his tongue and resorted to speaking English.

Halfway through their first day in Russia, Thomas Skull told Mr. Skull that his favorite part of the country was how they also had McDonald’s “just like back home,” though he expressed that he would like it better “if the menus were in English.”

“Chicken McNuggets, the universal language,” Mr. Skull joked though he knew that math was the real universal language.

Later that night in the hotel room, Mrs. Skull confessed to Mr. Skull that she “desperately needed this child.” It was what she’d always wanted that she never knew she’d always wanted. Mr. Skull liked how she smelled the same way in Russia that she did in the United States. He liked the familiarity of her body.

When they arrived at the orphanage (it wasn’t called that, but that’s what he called it in his head), they didn’t want to show them the girl. “Why are you hiding my child from me?” Mr. Skull asked because he already knew it was destiny.

When someone was threatening one of his children Mr. Skull got the same feeling he got on the football field when he was trying to tackle someone with the ball. He wanted to pummel them into the ground so hard that they could never touch his baby again. Babies were what he called women, children, and footballs.

The women, who were really harmless after all, not worthy of pummeling to the ground, took the Skull family to a small backroom. It reminded Mr. Skull of picking out a kitten at the Humane Society as a small child. He selected the kitten he wanted to play with from the wire cage, a small orange tabby cat that would later become a large orange tabby cat with an abnormally needy disposition and they sat in a windowless white room covered in cat fur and half-destroyed toys while Mr. Skull, then Boy-Skull tried to bond with this kitten and decide if it was going to be his forever. The kitten wouldn’t engage. He walked around the room, swatting at the fake mice and rolling on the floor and ignoring the Skulls who sat staring at him, wondering aloud, “Is he ours? Should we take him home?” But Boy-Skull had already decided that this cat was his, he’d brought him into this room and that sealed their fate. He felt the same way, years later, sitting on the floor of the veterinarian’s office, trying to stick his cat’s tongue back into its mouth from where it was hanging out grotesquely after receiving medicine to put it to sleep and out of its cancerous, diabetic misery. He did not see why a child should be any different than a cat.

The women walked the child into the room and sat her on a chair. They mumbled to each other in Russian, words that Mr. Skull didn’t understand. He felt as though they were purposefully obscuring their speech. He wanted to tell them, “Speak more clearly,” as if he would find somehow find something recognizable in those syllables. As a math teacher, Mr. Skull knew a lot about using language that people did not understand.

They had thought she wasn’t photogenic. “Maybe it’s the light making her face look that way,” they said. “Maybe the cameras they use in Russia aren’t as good as our cameras,” they said. In actuality, it was just that she wasn’t very good looking. She wore the same frown that she had in the photograph. A grim line across the face. Her head was more of a square shape than an oval. As a math teacher, Mr. Skull knew a lot about shapes.

It wasn’t as though he thought she would break into a smile upon meeting them, say, “My family!” She couldn’t say that because she didn’t speak English. Instead he had thought that she would break into a smile and say, “Моя семья,” which was the translation of “my family” in Russian that Mr. Skull had looked up on the internet.

Before every football game, Mr. Skull liked to envision the win. How he would pump his arms into the air, let out a guttural noise that at any other time would be embarrassing, but in football was an acceptable breach of decorum. After a win, he always said, “I’m so proud of my boys.” He said this whether he was the coach or one of the players. He always thought of everyone as one of his boys.

After facing a lost, Mr. Skull sat quietly and told himself, “I’m still proud of my boys,” over and over again until he was actually proud of his boys. Sometimes his wife would sit with him and he would lay his head on her chest while she pat his mostly hairless skull. He vowed to be a better person, not just as a football player or as a coach, but in the entirety of his life. There was no correlation between being a good person and winning at football, but it seemed as though there ought to be.

The child was drooling. One of the women wiped away the drool. Mrs. Skull went over to the girl and said, “Hi,” in the most timid of voices. The girl would not look at her face, but instead stared off into the distance. Mrs. Skull was a patient woman. She had filed several hundred nonprofit grants in her lifetime. She stood in front of the girl asking her questions about her life and telling her about their family and how they were so excited to meet her. The girl said nothing. At one point, the child lifted one of her hands into the air and made a reaching gesture, causing Mrs. Skull to turn around and give Mr. Skull a smile, but after she put her hand down it was clear that the movement had been directed at the empty space in front of her rather than to Mrs. Skull.

Many of Mr. Skull’s high school students had spent years of their lives living in refugee camps. They didn’t have the language to tell him what this was like and it wasn’t his place to ask. It was his job to teach them math and that’s what he was good at. He drew symbols on the board. He said words like, “add and subtract,” but these phrases were meaningless unless one could connect the sound to the action. He drew the symbols on the board like Bob Ross painted things for children on the television show his kids had watched when they were younger. Though Mr. Skull was a football coach, he never yelled. Yelling was not a way to create understanding. He drew the symbols repeatedly on the overhead projector and the teenagers loosely mimicked these symbols on their tests as though they were his art students and accuracy didn’t matter.

The women took the child away. She was tired, they said, but Mr. Skull was uncertain as to how they knew. What was the sign for tired in this child’s language? Had she blinked a particular blink that Mr. Skull, so captivated by his wife’s attempts to get the girl to respond, had failed to notice?

“Can she communicate?” Mr. Skull asked the women. Earlier their English had been competent, but their answer came slowly like they too were losing the ability to speak. The answer came as a conglomeration of voices, all of them women coming together to form a single sentence. “Sometimes we think she understands what we are saying,” they said.

“How do you know she understands?” he asked, but they had no answer to that question.

That night in the hotel room Mrs. Skull laid her head on Mr. Skull’s chest. “I love her even though she didn’t speak to me,” she said. One of the reasons Mr. Skull loved Mrs. Skull was her deep and unabashed ability to love. Out of all the reasons he loved her, this was the most selfish. He wanted to be loved like that, wholly and completely. “I know,” Mr. Skull said, and pat her dyed blonde hair.

They visited her one last time. “There is still a chance,” Mr. Skull told himself when it was the fourth quarter and he was losing a football game and what he told himself when he was going to leave a child that had almost been his child in Russia forever.

She was throwing a tantrum and it was almost a relief to see her like that, emotional and human, instead of the badly shaped wax figurine of the day before. The women were trying to comfort her. They offered toys and food and attempted to hug her, but there was no consoling this child who screamed as though she knew she was being left behind. The women apologized. “She gets like this sometimes,” they said. They took her away quickly.

Mr. Skull told Mrs. Skull to wait outside with the children while he told the women at the orphanage that they couldn’t take the child. “We don’t have the necessary resources,” he said.

Mr. Skull and Mrs. Skull took their children to a park nearby their hotel and the children were happy that the playground had much of the same equipment that they were used to playgrounds having in the United States. To leave home and only look for what is familiar.

Mr. Skull’s classroom smelled when he returned. When he pointed this out to his colleagues, they laughed and said, “Skull, that’s what teenagers smell like.”

The trial had started for the football player. Because he was a minor, they weren’t allowed to show pictures of his face, but Mr. Skull already knew what he looked like. A man identified by block letters on the back of a jersey.

The football player had an alibi, but not the sort of alibi that meant he had not done it, but rather he had an explanation for why he had. He had been smoking marijuana those two nights and everyone knew that marijuana wasn’t the sort of drug to go and make a kid rape somebody and especially not two somebodies, but the stuff he was smoking had been laced with something, PCP, he said.

Mr. Skull had smoked weed in college. He liked to go out on the weekend and party with the other players. He did this dance, a Skull dance, where he went bounce, bounce, bounce, chug beer, bounce, bounce, bounce. He had a lot of body to move. At the end of the night he went back to Mrs. Skull’s little dorm room who was then Not-Mrs. Skull-at-all. Her dorm room was so much nicer than his own dorm room and they had sex on her little bed and she fell asleep on top of him because there was nowhere else for her to sleep. She told him, Skull, that his body was like a pillow.

The accused rapist’s grandmother assured the press that her grandson had done no such thing, even though he had confessed. “He’s such a good athlete,” she said repeatedly. “I don’t know why they are blaming him for this. It could’ve been anybody.”

The students started acting up in the springtime. That’s what the teachers said in the break room, “The kids are acting up again. It’s that springtime weather” and then they laughed like they made a joke. The entire back row of Mr. Skull’s geometry class had been sleeping for weeks. He caught a boy openly reading Harry Potter instead of looking at his math book.

“Do you want to see real magic?” Mr. Skull asked. “Pay attention in math class.”

One day Mr. Skull stopped teaching in the middle of a lesson and told the class about his trip to Russia. “We just didn’t have the resources necessary,” he said. Then he, Mr. Skull, began to cry in front of everyone and they, the students, stared up at him with the same blank faces they always did and Mr. Skull realized that these were not the faces of misunderstanding as he’d always assumed, but just how their faces looked, smooth and expressionless. The impossibility of reading a face: what could a nose tell a person anyway?

That night, Mr. Skull found a wart on one of Mrs. Skull’s toes. He asked her where she had gotten it from and was she seeing other men and Mrs. Skull pat him on the head and said, “No, honey. It’s probably from the gym.”

Mr. Skull was acquainted with grimy locker room floors, the fungus that can grow between the toes. Humans like a plot of land ripe for fertilizing. “We should burn that off,” he told Mrs. Skull.

Mr. Skull applied for a job as a math teacher/head football coach at a different high school. He liked the sound of it, Coach Skull, Head Coach

They called him in for an interview a week later and offered him a job on the spot. They shook hands at the end of the meeting and said, “Pretty weird about that trial, eh?” He said, “Yeah, pretty weird.”

The accused rapist was found guilty and sentenced to two terms of twenty-three years. At Mr. Skull’s goodbye party held in the break room at the high school where they served cupcakes with a skull and cross-bones on them and made jokes about how they would see him on the football field next year, everyone murmured how good it was that such a bad man had been put behind bars. But, they added, they still never suspected that he could’ve done such a thing. He was such a good football player.

Mrs. Skull took the picture of the girl down from the refrigerator, but she didn’t throw it away and instead put it in a box of pictures they had from when the biological Skull children were babies and people still occasionally got pictures developed.

Tommy Skull was doing well at little league baseball. He was one of the biggest kids on the field. Mr. Skull was careful to cheer for all the children on the field, but admitted that he cheered the loudest for his son. One of the team mothers asked if he could “please keep it down a bit” and he looked at her and said. “It’s a sports game.”

At his new job, Mr. Skull had his own office with his name on the door. “Skull,” it said. The office was in a basement and had cinderblock walls, but Mr. Skull couldn’t complain. They couldn’t afford to give him a nice desk chair, they were a public school after all, so Mr. Skull brought in his desk chair from home. When no one was looking, he would take a couple of spins in the chair before coming to a stop in front of the computer.

“This is all I ever wanted,” Mr. Skull said looking around at the cinderblock walls and putting barbeque chips in his mouth. Mrs. Skull didn’t like it when he ate chips. She wanted him to eat well-rounded meals for his health. “I need you to live a long time” she said. But Mr. Skull decided that he deserved to eat some chips that day. Mr. Skull had been losing weight. His bones starting to show through the skin.

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Tasha Coryell is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama where she Roll Tides with the football team every Saturday in the fall. Excerpts of her novel “This Isn’t Really About Fishing” can be found on Hobart and Cartridge Lit. She’s also had stories in [PANK], The Collagist, and Word Riot. You can find her tweeting under @tashaaaaaaa and on her website at tashacoryell.com.