Wednesday, fifth period. The Principal appears at my office door and gruffly announces, “The sloppy joes are too peppery.” The cafeteria ladies, he hears, are overcompensating for a salt shortage. He wants me to sort it out, preferably after calling the temp agency to find him a new personal assistant.
“So much paperwork,” he adds.
It’s been two days since Gladys succumbed to a breakdown. The superintendent is visiting next week.
I reply, “I will look into it.”
He nods, chin clamping down like a hole punch, and retreats to his office directly across the hall, sweeping by Gladys’s paper-laden desk in the reception area in front of his office.
I look up the number of the temp agency. Meanwhile, he phones his wife, keeping the door open as if to remind me I can move on; a permission slip.
The sign on my door says Assistant Principal with all the confidence of a blunt pencil.
Gladys made herself redundant. The stress she felt was caused by her own inefficiency—a refusal to adapt to new digital processes, always preferring paper. Anything completed on a computer took an age. For example, she always typed two spaces after a period; padded her own existence. People like Gladys are the reason a sentence is called doing time.
I’ve already gotten the rundown on Lyssa, the replacement the temp agency signed up on her arrival from the UK. After years of long-distance “love,” Lyssa crossed the pond to marry a local newscaster, Brian Troward (more commonly known as Brian Troward, Eyewitness News with a beat before Brian and before Eyewitness.) Word around Amherst is that she remains blissfully unaware her husband is the initiation rite for interns at the station.
I shouldn’t judge. I myself know side chicks can be as willfully blind as any wife out there.
Our time together used to take place post-game—basketball, football—on Friday nights. A rotation of cheap motels in Hadley: Howard Johnson. Econo-Lodge. Knights Inn.
A perpetual two-star experience.
Friday, sixth period. The end-of-week anticipation is heightened: Lyssa’s arrival on Monday. I dust her desk. Flip the calendar. Place a fake flower in the vase next to the new computer.
Earlier in the day, the IT contractor said it was impossible to upgrade Gladys’s PC—she had refused software and hardware updates for so long, it’d become incompatible with everything. Optimized for nothing.
Well-informed from several contract jobs at the TV station, the IT guy set English (United Kingdom) as the default language for the new computer’s software. A kind gesture. He assured me Brian Troward, Eyewitness News is a dick.
My Friday night is dickless. I could spice things up if I wanted. Head to a bar, offer myself up as a snack, add salt, add pepper. Instead, I drive around town and try not to think of everyone out drinking, partying, fucking like I used to.
Monday, third period. Lyssa is bewildering. Writes dates the wrong way round—day first, month second. Drops the L from “enrollment” and “installment.” Inserts a U into “color” and “neighborhood.” Uses an S when there should be a Z. Official correspondence becomes an eyesore, the reaction swift.
“Use spell check,” the teachers gripe.
“What language is this?” ask the parents.
From the superintendent: “We put a stop to this in 1776.”
She is unfazed at the backlash. Giggles and apologizes. Leaves her computer settings untouched. After the last bell rings, I ask her why she doesn’t care about getting things the wrong way around.
“Because I’m not wrong,” she says.
She leans forward and sniffs the flower.
The Principal storms down the hallway, wears an annoyed expression as he’s berated on his cell phone. Is it the superintendent? His wife? The cafeteria ladies?
On the way to slamming his door, he casts me a dark look as if I am at fault for his faults. I have seen this before; the morning after, breakfast special regret. Rubbery eggs, fatty bacon, soft toast. Tiny packets of butter and honey already sticky on the outside. The dawning knowledge that what seemed like a bargain could end up being quite costly.
On Wednesday the President of the PTA sends boxes of tea to the Principal, along with a map of Boston Harbor.
I tell Lyssa that spelling matters. Her name is not Lyzza, for instance.
She compares ess to zed. I remind her politely it is zee.
At this, she giggles like a plush toy who animates when their hand is squeezed. Says, “I guess we Brits are like snakes: essssss, suh-essssssssss. You Americans are like chainsaws: zedddd, zuhhh-edddd.”
There is tidying to be done for the superintendent’s visit. I stay back with Lyssa. At five-fifteen, I join her in the faculty lounge for instant coffee and the news.
Lyssa claps happily whenever the newscast crosses back to Brian. Even if someone were to tell her Brian Troward, Eyewitness News has more extras than a Hollywood backlot, she wouldn’t believe it. It’d fly over her head. Zeeeeeee.
What a dumb bitch.
I drive to the Principal’s house just before midnight. Open the trunk of my car and survey the supplies, sourced in a similar darkness over a week ago.
An Assistant Principal is a school’s backup, a second set of keys.
I pull out the sacks.
He’d said, “It’s crazy you’re unattached.”
Drag each one to the porch.
He’d said, “You’re everything a man wants.”
Slash them with a box cutter.
He’d said, “For Christ’s sake, what is wrong with you? Don’t you get what casual means? I don’t have time for this. Why do you have to be so fucking salty?”
The salt pours out, streaming over my shoes, over the welcome mat. There are sounds from inside the house—footsteps, then curses just before the porch light turns on.
Belinda Hermawan’s short fiction has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Pigeon Pages, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find more of her writing at www.bd-writer.com. Follow her on Twitter @bd_writer