I don’t make a habit of following women, especially old women, around CVS stores, but there was something familiar about this old woman–the set of her shoulders, her eyes, her hair.
At home things had begun to go downhill at about noontime. Annie was in the kitchen getting a head start on dinner—we’d invited a few friends over for a cookout. Jem was still asleep. She’d been to a vampire party the night before—thirteen-year old girls, pizza, and one of those Twilight movies.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but Clay was moping around inside. He shuffled from room to room, pulling the shades up and down, switching lights on and off. He was driving us nuts. Annie told him he should do something. What did he feel like doing?
“There’s nothing to do,” he said.
“How about cleaning up your room? That’ll give you something to do,” said Annie.
“Mom, why don’t you clean my damn room if it bothers you so much!”
Then Clay stomped upstairs and slammed his bedroom door—twice. Annie and I went up to have a little talk with him. She opened his door. I was right behind her.
“Clay, start cleaning up this pigsty right now,” said Annie. “Look at me. Right now. And watch your language.”
“You and Dad say swears all the time!” said Clay. “Dad says fuck.”
“Dad’s allowed to say fuck. You’re not.”
All the noise woke up Jem, who poked her head out of her room and said her ear hurt.
“Let me feel your forehead, sweetheart,” said Annie. She laid her palm against Jem’s forehead. “You feel like you’re burning up.”
Annie went into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet, but the thermometer wasn’t in there, so she quizzed all of us about who used it last and where did we put it.
Clay said, “Don’t look at me. Why is everybody always blaming me about everything?”
Jem said, “Maybe the dog took it.” We don’t have a dog.
We tore the house apart looking for that thermometer, but we couldn’t find it. Suddenly, Annie screamed, “Oh my God, the potatoes!” and ran downstairs. I heard a pot slamming and a loud “Goddammit!”
When I got to the kitchen she was glaring at a large saucepan.
“They’re ruined,” she said. “So much for the potato salad.”
“Well, why don’t you make mashed potatoes?” I said.
Annie gave me a look and dumped the potatoes into the sink.
I went outside and mowed the lawn. I raked up the cuttings and put them in the compost bin.
I swept the patio and dumped charcoal into the grill. Then I took a bunch of dead leaves off the rhododendrons and threw those in the compost bin too. I rearranged the porch furniture.
When I went back inside Annie handed me a shopping list. She wanted paper napkins, bug spray, aspirin, paper towels, seltzer, and a digital thermometer.
I’d gotten everything on Annie’s list except the digital thermometer when I spotted the woman. I trailed her around the store, trying to get a closer look as she filled her red basket with Kleenex, pens, skin lotion, a notebook, and a tiny bag of potato chips. We were in Coughs and Colds when I finally realized who she was.
“Miss Worthington, it’s me, Warren Felts.”
There was no response. Nothing. Audrey Worthington still had big brown eyes and remarkable cheekbones, but seen up close her face was creased and wrinkled. Her hair was still short and straight, but gray. She wore white slacks, sandals, and a green blouse that looked like they’d come straight out of a Talbots catalog.
“I’m sorry, the name just doesn’t ring a bell.” She shrugged. “You’ll have to give me a hint.”
“I was in your class in sixth grade. You were my homeroom teacher.”
“Warren Felts.” It wasn’t a question, but it wasn’t a ringing declaration either. She must have sensed my disappointment and she brightened a little.
“What a pleasant surprise, Warren. What are you up to these days?”
“I’m a professor at Boston University.”
“How nice,” said Miss Worthington. “What do you teach, dear?”
“Biology. And earth science.”
“Is that so? Well, good for you.” She was smiling in a distracted way and looking past me, up the aisle.
“Do you live around here, Miss Worthington?” I asked, eager to keep our conversation from grinding to a complete halt.
“Gracious, no!” she said, as though my question was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard. “I’m here visiting my sister. I’m still in Bucks County, Warren. I suppose you’ll think me a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but I’ve lived in New Hope for, oh, goodness, a number of years.”
She smiled shyly at her little joke. It was the same smile, more or less, that I fell in love with when I was a young boy. Audrey Worthington asked if I was married and I told her a little about Annie and Jem and Clay. She filled me in on all the changes that had taken place in New Hope and how touristy it had become. She mentioned classmates of mine she saw occasionally: Tommy Hosbach ran his dad’s filling station and had six kids, Gary Crouthamel was a lawyer in town, and Phyllis Taylor—she was Phyllis Preston now—had been elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature. Beyond telling me she’d bought a little cottage on Aquetong Road, and that she spent a lot of time in her garden, she didn’t volunteer much personal information and I didn’t ask.
Because I was hopelessly in love with my teacher, I despised Alan Holmes, the muscular, block-headed man who sat next to her at band concerts and school plays. People said he was her fiancé. I hated that word, still do. Even after what happened that summer.
Alan Holmes was a landscaper. He had a pickup truck with his name painted on the side and sometimes it appeared in our driveway, filled with plants. Alan would climb down from his truck and unload the plants. He’d tease me about school and girls, making me squirm and seethe.
My mother, a big smile on her face, would walk around the yard with Alan, pointing here and there. Then she’d sit on the porch smoking as she watched Alan Holmes dig holes, drop the young trees or shrubs into the holes, and shovel dirt back in around them.
Once, when Dad came home and saw the bill for these services, he blew up.
“Two hundred bucks? For what? Six scrawny evergreens?”
“Alan’s a certified horticulturist,” my mother said. “We’re paying for his expertise. I think it’s well worth it.”
“How much fucking expertise do you need to stick a goddamn tree in the ground?” said my father.
I knew enough to keep my mouth shut, but I agreed with my dad; I couldn’t see how it took any brains to do what Alan did. In my opinion, he was just a big, muscle-bound dope.
When Audrey and I were married with children of our own, we’d take pity on poor Alan Holmes and hire him to plant trees in our yard. Gigantic, expensive trees. We’d have delicious cookouts in the shade of those trees. Driving by in his stupid old truck, Alan would see what a happy family we were and he’d be sorry as hell he’d ever ruffled my hair and called me teacher’s pet. I was going to marry his girlfriend. Let’s see how funny he’d find that! In the meantime I daydreamed about inventing a powerful ray gun and vaporizing the bastard.
“I remember going to your apartment once. You had the whole class over to see your rabbits. You served cookies and ginger ale.”
“My rabbits.” She smiled and shook her head. “Gracious, what a memory you have.”
She had two rabbits then, one black and the other brown and white. Our class went to visit them on a cold winter afternoon. Snow crunched under our feet as we marched down Main Street, past McCuskey’s Hardware, the post office, the old train station. Miss Worthington turned the corner onto Mechanic Street and our class followed, the girls in a tight bunch right behind her and then us boys, skidding on the slippery pavement, shoving one another, acting like idiots. It’s no wonder that the girls in our class, some of them beginning to grow breasts and become interested in boys—older boys—viewed their male classmates with disdain.
Tall, geeky Eric Peters fired a snowball at me. It caught me on the side of the head.
“Bullseye!” said Eric.
I reached down and packed together a clump of snow and threw it at him. He was quick, despite his goofy appearance, and he sidestepped the snowball, which crashed harmlessly against a brick wall.
Without turning her head, Miss Worthington said, in a loud voice, “Warren, that will be the last snowball thrown on this field trip.”
Eric flipped me the bird and we continued on our way to see our teacher’s rabbits.
Until I mentioned her rabbits, it seemed that Miss Worthington would just as soon not have run into me. Far from home, she’d probably felt safe from encounters with former students, but here she was, stuck with one she barely recalled, one who wanted to chat.
“Warren, you don’t happen to remember the names of my rabbits, do you?”
I could see her desk piled high with test papers and book reports. I could smell the busted pieces of chalk and dusty erasers in the trough below the blackboard. I saw a row of tall windows, a bank of hissing radiators, and a pull-down map of the United States.
I almost raised my hand before I answered her.
“Flossie and Bossie,” I said.
“You don’t miss a trick, do you, Warren? I haven’t thought about those rabbits for a long, long time.”
Our teacher had an apartment above Abbott’s Drug Store. We climbed the stairs—“Single file, everyone. Eric, no pushing!”—and when we reached the top, Miss Worthington told us to pile our coats in the hallway and ushered us through the living room, past a door that must have led to her bedroom, and into the kitchen. Flossie and Bossie were in a wire cage on a low table set against the wall. There was yellow straw at the bottom of the cage and nestled in the straw were several fresh, dark rabbit turds. Miss Worthington took Flossie and Bossie out of their cage and passed them around. Each of us took turns patting the rabbits, everyone except Carol Weinberger, who was afraid of them. Our teacher told us what her pets liked to eat, why they had such big ears, and how they differed from other small mammals. Then Flossie and Bossie were returned to their wire home and Miss Worthington asked, “Now, who would like some cookies and ginger ale?”
Sixteen hands shot up.
A paper cup in one hand and a cookie in the other, I sat on the sofa and watched Audrey Worthington. What a pretty teacher we had! The other sixth grade teacher was Mr. Kauffman, an unpopular man with a pencil mustache. Everyone called him The Weasel, and I was glad to be in Miss Worthington’s class instead. She smiled and laughed and cracked corny jokes. She had a party, with cake and ice cream, on each student’s birthday. She expected us to pay attention in class and do our homework, but she knew there might be a good reason an assignment didn’t get handed in on time. In vivid contrast to The Weasel, it was possible to believe that our beautiful teacher was once just like us.
After we finished the cookies and ginger ale we put on our coats and hats and trooped back up Main Street. It was a dark afternoon and snow had begun to fall again. When we got back to our classroom it was nearly time to go home and when the bell rang, we grabbed our books and backpacks and hurried out the door. I turned for a final glimpse of Miss Worthington, but she’d already begun writing an outline of tomorrow’s history lesson on the blackboard. Bill of Rights, she’d written, and then, Thomas Jefferson. I joined the crowd banging down the hallway and out into the snow. The kids who lived outside of town, like me, climbed aboard the busses waiting in the driveway.
I was clearing frost from the window when Eric threw himself onto the seat next to me. He punched my arm with a gloved fist.
“Quit it, you asshole,” I said.
“Gonna make me?”
“I just might.”
“Oh, yeah? You and what army?”
I wanted to sit by myself and think about Miss Worthington’s apartment. Despite Eric’s squirrely presence, I dipped, cautiously, into this wealth of new romantic material. Since I spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like when I was married to Miss Worthington—when we were Mr. and Mrs. Warren Felts—it had been exciting to see the actual place we’d begin our life together, what furniture we’d have, what oil painting would hang above our mantel, what photographs we’d put on our refrigerator. Audrey could keep most of hers: the photos of nieces and nephews, snapshots from the science fair, the one of her smiling in a baseball cap. We’d add some photographs of my family too, but all the pictures of Alan Holmes would have to go.
Of course, after I started thinking up all my great inventions and became a famous scientist we’d be rich and Audrey and I would live in a mansion.
The bus inched along the highway. Beside me, Eric chuckled as he leafed through a copy of Mad Magazine. I imagined Audrey and me, on a snowy day like this one, alone in our mansion. We’d feed the rabbits and then she’d tell me about her day at school. She’d ask how things were going in my laboratory and I’d tell her all about my latest invention. And when the snow really piled up outside, we’d walk hand-in-hand into the bedroom and Audrey would take off her clothes and we’d do some of the things that married couples did.
Then Eric was poking my arm again.
“Wake up, Warren darling!” he said in a falsetto voice.
“Eric, go blow yourself, why don’t you?”
“Guess what I saw at Miss Worthington’s?” he said. “In her bathroom.”
I stared out the window. Cars crawled by with headlights blazing, their tires throwing pellets of dirty snow against the side of the bus.
“Tampax!” said Eric triumphantly.
“How long are you staying in Boston?” I asked the old woman.
“I’m leaving tomorrow. My sister and I were in Maine for a few days. She rents a place in Ogunquit every August.” She glanced at her basket. “I’m just getting a few things for the trip home.”
“When does school start?”
“Oh, I haven’t taught for several years, dear.” She looked back down at her basket and in a softer voice, as though she were addressing the items in there, she said, “I’ve seen so many come and go. So many seasons, Warren.”
I was thinking about my own kids, and my own students too.
“I know what you mean,” I said.
“You think you do, Warren.” She was looking right up into my eyes. “You think you do, but you don’t.”
I followed her as she walked toward the front of the store.
On a spring morning, after the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer, Miss Worthington told us about tickets for the school play, passed out copies of the lunchroom menu for the following week, and dropped a bombshell.
“I have one more announcement,” she said. “A personal one.” She said it slowly and carefully, as though she had rehearsed it.
“I know some of you have met my friend Alan Holmes at school events. And some of you know we’re engaged. Well, Alan and I are getting married on Saturday, August 2nd at the Methodist Church and you’re all invited to attend. Our wedding will be at three o’clock and afterwards we’re having a reception at the VFW hall. I hope you’ll all be able to come, and who knows, maybe one of you girls will catch my bouquet!”
There was a lot of giggling from the girls and then Susan Booth, who was a big brown-noser, started clapping and pretty soon everybody joined in. I didn’t really applaud; I just put my hands together and pulled them apart and put them back together again. Some of the boys started whooping and hollering. Miss Worthington’s face turned red. She held up her hands and said, “Thank you, class. Now let’s open our math workbooks and turn to page thirty-seven, please.”
School ended and summer began. My friends and I, shirtless and armed with sandwiches and jackknives, spent whole days in the woods. We were Indians. We built teepees and made bows and arrows and crude tomahawks. We gave ourselves Indian names: Little Brave Deer, Chief Thunder Cloud, Red Eagle, and Tall Bear. We started fires the Indian way, with sharpened twigs and dry leaves. We raided cornfields and melon patches. When we got tired of being Indians—it was hard work—we’d go swimming. We fished and played baseball. We stayed up late catching fireflies in jars or lay on the lawn looking at the stars.
One afternoon in the middle of July I came home from a bike ride and saw the local paper on the kitchen table. The front page had an article about layoffs at the cardboard factory in Lambertville, and below that, another story: LOCAL MAN DROWNS IN BOATING ACCIDENT, TWO OTHERS RESCUED. There was a grainy photograph of Alan Holmes, grinning as he stood next to his truck.
I felt sick as I looked at his picture and read about the accident: the canoe capsizing in the river near Yardley, the frantic search and rescue, the recovery of Alan’s body. A team of divers from Philadelphia found it snagged against the railroad bridge at Titusville. The State Police said there was no reason to suspect alcohol had been involved, but they did report that none of the men had been wearing life jackets.
Alan Holmes was dead and I knew I was partly to blame. I also knew I’d never marry my teacher, not in a million, trillion, years.
That night, over dinner, my mom and dad talked about the accident. Dad was drinking iced tea, but Mom was on her second gin and tonic.
“Alan was such a fine young man,” said my mother. “He was so charming, so handsome.”
My father shot her a look. “What the hell were they thinking?” he said. “That’s a bad stretch of water down there, even in the daytime. You’d have to be crazy or drunk to take a canoe through those rapids at night.”
Miss Worthington set the contents of her basket on the counter. The cashier rang up the sale and the old woman opened her purse and pulled out a twenty dollar bill.
Miss Worthington,” I said, “whatever happened to those rabbits?”
“Heavens, Warren, those rabbits died a very long time ago.”
She turned back to the cashier and handed her the twenty. I stared for a moment at a sunburned patch of skin between Miss Worthington’s hair and the collar of her blouse. I had an urge to lean down and kiss my teacher’s neck, but then she turned to me and said, “Well, goodbye Warren. It was awfully nice running into you after all these years.”
I wished her a safe trip and, carrying her CVS bag, she walked out the door and onto the sidewalk. She hesitated for a moment and then she headed down Charles Street.
As I drove home I thought about how I’d almost kissed Miss Worthington’s neck. I thought about Alan Holmes and about being young. I thought about how everything changes.
When I pulled into our driveway, Clay was dribbling a soccer ball around the yard. I got out of the car and Clay yelled, “Hey Dad, watch this!” He drew back his leg and kicked the ball. It sailed across the lawn and into our fence.
“Goal!” I shouted.
I leaned against the car and watched Clay for a while and then I went inside. Annie was in the kitchen making a rhubarb pie. She’d pinned up her hair but a few strands had come loose and lay plastered against her face. I set down my bag, my car keys, and sunglasses.
“How’s Jem?” I said.
“Now she says her stomach hurts. She’s upstairs watching Hannah Montana.”
Annie started poking around in the CVS bag.
“Warren, where’s the thermometer?”
“Oh, Christ!” I slapped my forehead. “I forgot it. I ran into somebody.”
“How could you forget the main thing you were supposed to get? Running into someone made you black out? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“It was somebody from when I was a kid, somebody who used to have a couple of rabbits.”
Annie cocked her head. “Well, Peter Cottontail, how about that thermometer?”
“I’m going, I’m going,” I said, and I scooped the car keys off the kitchen table.
Todd McKie is an artist and writer. His stories have appeared in PANK, Twelve Stories, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pure Slush, and elsewhere. Todd lives in Boston.