Retirement crept up on me.
I insisted to friends that I could teach forever, but stacks of ungraded essays sat on my desk. I turned to Frontline to explain difficult concepts to my students. I relied heavily on caffeine.
One evening, stopped at the light on Main, I spotted a student on the sidewalk — probably a freshman — darting out of the way of a family with five unruly girls. One of them tripped, but the parents and other girls paraded on, unaware. The student helped her up, took off his hat and placed it on her head. Once he knew she was okay, he grabbed it back playfully and waved as she made her way to her family.
At home, a spider web appeared between an exposed beam and one corner of our bedroom ceiling. The web was fantastic— expansive and effective. A continuous buffet of gnats, flies, mosquitoes hovered over our bed. I assured my wife that a well-fed spider would have no interest in us. I assured her that I’d take care of all the spiders in the world once I retired in June.
I announced my plan. My social studies colleagues slapped me on the back, ruffled my hair, even. Joked that off their hands, I’d be my wife’s problem. Said they’d take me out when it got tough having me around.
I adjusted to the idea of my departure, now in view. I began to give away books, staplers, planners, Moleskines, fine-tip Sharpies. I took frequent curtain calls: This is it, my friends. My last Back-to-School Night. My last pep rally. My last second-quarter report card.
I recognized Jesse, the hat-giver from the street, when he joined my Wellness Club. The club’s mission: to promote healthy practices. My involvement was a casualty of my friendship with a gym teacher. He’d bailed on me in the club’s second year, and I’d hung on for no reason I could articulate. I guess I was still amused by the earnestness of the students— their neon announcements of fundraisers, bubble-lettered invitations to student-led yoga, posters outlining the top ten strategies for self-care—during exams, as deadlines approach, while you balance sports, music, art, academics!
When Jesse approached me with a poem he’d written, I asked, Have you shown your English teacher? I bet her feedback would be helpful.
I took the poem without any real intent.
The spider carried on, our little ceiling warrior. I researched. Its ashy color suggested the brown recluse whose bite can turn gangrenous, but its web indicated a common house spider. I predicted it would live for a year and felt pleased that it would be there when I retired.
I’ll take care of it then, I told my wife. Promise.
Punctuated by last this, last that, the year rolled on. I began to consider what I’d be doing in retirement. During free periods I Googled a local pottery center to see about getting back to the wheel. Searched the community center’s site to see about volunteering with Spanish-speaking families. Searched the community college for brush-up classes in Spanish. Looked for a trainer for the puppy I would adopt.
I texted my wife, already retired: Almost there. Feels weird. Spiders, beware.
Jesse’s attendance became erratic — the best he could do with an activity the social worker had probably mandated. Sometimes he would linger after meetings, adjust his hat, try to muster— what? A question? A favor? My quick exit must have felt like a hand held up to his face.
I’m so sorry. I have to go.
One night, a television show about the Arctic cast a bluish light into our bedroom. My wife slept, and I watched our spider leave its web and ease down toward my pillow. After it lingered for what seemed like almost the whole hour, I lay wondering, What was its impetus? Its craving? Food? Water? Perspective?
At my last department meeting, I chimed in on the subject of next year’s debate. Don’t you think we—
Why are you even here?
Jesse faded, reclusive under dull, baggy clothes. His hat blanketed his eyes. Vaporous, he drifted through the halls in shoes that made no sound.
I asked him about the club, why he hadn’t been coming. He shrugged, and I let that be his answer. I want to think I smiled at him, but I don’t think I did.
The buffet refilled itself continuously, and the spider doubled in size. I wondered about a spider’s purpose. Bug control?
What are you doing here? I asked out loud.
My wife thought I was talking to her.
An hour after dismissal one day, I was loading items into my briefcase: a framed yearbook dedication, a chipped United Airlines mug. From the hallway, someone shouted, Go home!
Jesse’s funeral was the afternoon that was supposed to be my last Wellness Club meeting. A puncture wound of irony, not lost on me.
I left school that day and headed to the funeral home next to the pottery center, but not before I dug out his poem, buried in my briefcase. At the very top, his name. Right before my eyes blurred, the title in faint pencil: “Scar.”
The spider dropped into our bed. When I awoke, I saw it lying nearly lifeless, its mangled legs struggling to regain mobility. I studied it for a while before leaving it unattended on my pillowcase. I didn’t know it had bitten me until a few days later when a mark on the palm of my hand morphed into a pulsing sore— dark at its center.
I’ve stopped sleeping.
Every year, there’d been a reminder: a heads-up from a guidance counselor, a pained gaze on a parent’s lined face, a college essay detailing two weeks in a psych hospital, a bracelet that couldn’t hide a faded scar.
Every year, the possibility.
Karen Zlotnick was born and raised in New York. She lives in Westchester County with her husband and their Newfoundland dog. She teaches high school English, and when she’s not in the classroom, she writes fiction. Currently, she’s working on a collection of linked short stories. “Scar” is one of them.