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Authors: Gillian Roberts

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BOOK: Adam and Evil
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“Save your story for court,” Parke Evans said.

All the air in the room was gone. My story? Court? These words did not compute. Language had lost all sense.

But not for Parke Evans, who was back on the scent. “What about his college applications? Have you gone after him there, too? Did you put your insane suspicions on evaluations? Adam trusted you.”

I refused to be dragged down to the level the little dog sought. “I asked you to come here today to talk about finding a way to help your son.”

“I’ll bet you did, or you want to now. You get your way and it’d look really good on applications, wouldn’t it? ‘Dear school, by the way, Adam’s under psychiatric care, on medications,’ or whatever else you dream up!”

“You don’t like him, do you?” Dorothy Evans spoke with vigor, her voice matching her ramrod posture. The lioness was guarding her cub. “He told me you don’t, that none of you teachers do. I thought it was all youthful exaggeration, but he was right. You don’t like creativity. You treat originality as a problem. You must really hate him if you’re trying to derail him at this point.”

“We don’t think you’re fit to be in a school setting,” Mr. Evans said. “You’re dangerous to children.”

At least he was now talking in terms of
. They were showing a unified front. If this went on much longer, they’d reconcile right here in the counselor’s office.

“What is Dr. Havermeyer’s position on your accusations?” Mr. Evans demanded.

“Nobody’s made accusations,” I said. “Please, can’t we help Adam instead of … of whatever it is we’re doing?”

“You haven’t answered my question,” he snapped.

“Dr. Havermeyer doesn’t …” The last presence I would have willingly invited into the room, even if only in name, was my headmaster, to whom the only sin was upsetting a tuition-paying parent. “It isn’t procedure to keep him informed of every conference as it happens, although of course there will be a note to that effect in Adam’s folder.”

“You kept this secret from him. This is a personal vendetta with you, isn’t it?”

I had no intention of responding to his nasty, bullying tone, but it didn’t matter, because he didn’t require a response.

“This doesn’t end in this office,” he added. “You’re a hazard, Miss Pepper. A fanatic. How many young lives have you destroyed already? And you don’t have one iota of concern. I may be just an appliance store owner because I didn’t have advantages growing up, but I’ve made sure Adam has everything I didn’t. That’s why he’s here—to grow his own way. This school says it’s for the unusual student. The one who isn’t standard issue. You should be ashamed of yourself.” He stood up, smoothing his jacket and trousers and waiting until Dorothy stood as well. “I’ve been advertising on TV and radio for twenty years,” he said. “I have friends in the media. This is not going to be a quiet episode you can all ignore so you can go on smacking kids around and wrecking their lives.”

“I want to help your son.” I watched my words fly, fall, and burn. Kamikaze hopes.

Mr. Evans paused at the doorway. “I’ll have your head for this.”

Rachel appeared behind him and stepped aside as he and his wife stalked out. “Ouch!” she said. “If looks could kill— what happened?”

“Basically, they did to me what I assume you did to the toilet bowl.”

She sighed and gathered papers and a booklet from her desktop. “I could have predicted that.”

“They did a you’ll-never-work-in-this-town-again thing. And an I’ll-have-you-arrested thing. I am now a hazard to children’s health. A batterer. Parke Evans has been generous to the school. I am disposable. He’s not.” I hoisted my briefcase strap to my shoulder. “I’ve managed to make things about as bad as they can be.”

Wrong again.


conference between the Evanses and Maurice Havermeyer. By beating a quick retreat, I might hang on to both my head and my job a while longer. I wasn’t as sure about maintaining my sanity.

I was so overfull of boiling emotions, there was steam on the windshield as I drove home. If only Adam’s parents had said, “Oh, that kid. He’s been that way since infancy.” Or “Adam is already seeing someone and working through these problems.” Or “Did you ever notice how Adam’s prose gets odd whenever he rereads
Finnegan’s Wake?”
Anything to make me think they knew what I was talking about. But they were forcing him to stumble on alone, and I knew of nothing more I could do to help him. Not that I’d helped him at all so far.

Would his parents tell him about our meeting? What would they say—and what effect would that have on the explosive, unpredictable boy? I’d know soon enough—his class was meeting at the library the next morning. It was a way to entertain the seniors and perhaps entice them into doing a bit more work before graduation. Maybe Adam would entertain the troops with a tirade against me. And maybe that would be good—would show he still understood cause and effect, a sign of mental health.

Halfway home, during the hourly news break, the radio newscaster said, “The Vermont high school that was the site of last week’s tragic massacre that left two dozen injured and
two faculty members and four students fatally wounded during a schoolwide assembly program, today held a memorial service in the same auditorium, to begin the healing process, according to Principal …”

“You see?” I demanded. I couldn’t have said to whom I addressed the question or what, indeed, I expected them to see. What, in fact, did I supposedly see? Maybe the Vermont shooter had nothing in common with Adam Evans. There’d been so many stories, maybe I was imagining a homicidal youth behind each desk.

Watch—Adam would turn out to be one of those geniuses who in years to come would lambaste the provincial twelfth-grade English teacher who’d suggested that he was mentally ill. I’d be a literary laughingstock. She who taught great literature but was blind to greatness when it was alive and in front of her face.
will come to mean artistic ignorance and lack of foresight.

“I wasn’t happy,” the Vermont boy had said by way of explanation for his killing spree.
, the announcer called him, a word that conjured up a more gentle image than that of a killer with a baseball cap on his head and a semiautomatic in his hands, spraying his schoolmates to death.

“Neighbors and classmates characterize Todd as a quiet young man who made up elaborate fantasies and wanted to be a computer-game designer. He had, according to several classmates, changed lately. ‘Maybe as if he was always playing one of his games, a war game,’ one has been quoted as saying. ‘Kind of creepy, to tell the truth.’”

“You see?”
I pounded my fist on the steering wheel. Had his teacher tried to talk to his parents? And had she been shouted down? Threatened? Do kids have to kill a dozen people in order to jump-start interest?
“Why doesn’t anybody see?”

I pounded my steering wheel so hard the side of my hand hurt, so hard I was shocked into hearing myself. I was becoming unhinged, an ironic result of concerns about somebody else’s mental health.

I simmered down, but Parke Evans’ stony expression stayed with me, as did the force of his vast disdain in that barky terrier voice of his. No wonder nobody intervened when the boy in Vermont grew ever more weird. Why subject
yourself to accusations, sneers, and unemployment? Why feel this awful mix of rage, worry and despair?

I couldn’t stop hearing Parke Evans’ voice, accusing me of twisting the truth, of maliciously tormenting his son.

One of my better students, Lia Jansson, was translating Henry James’
The Turn of the Screw
into a play, starring none other than herself, and I’d been rereading her notes on the novel so I could discuss her adaptation. Now the story felt terrifyingly close to my present reality—or at least to Parke Evans’ vision of my reality. Was I that governess? A woman who saw ghosts, who knew the children were possessed by them, whose hysteria led to the death of the boy in her charge?

Of course, maybe there really are ghosts. James’ governess goes on to be a fine teacher to other children.

I was making myself crazy and making nothing else better. I had to put all this behind me and get on with my life.

I parked the car and felt a pang of fear at the thought of joblessness. Then, oddly, I wondered whether that really would be so dreadful. Or whether I secretly craved an excuse to move on, find something new. The idea was staggering, but there it was, feeling comfy, as if it had been hanging around awhile, waiting to be noticed.

Testing, one, two: Goodbye, Philly Prep.

It sounded appropriate, as if the time had come. It sounded wonderful.

I was appalled. But it felt great—as if a permanent vacation had been offered. I’d never meant to stay in this job. I’d taken it after several disheartening attempts to find a use for an English major, and I’d intended it to be short-term, after which I’d go back to school and train for something else.

I rode the elevator up to the loft, apprehensive—and giddy.

Anything was possible, if I opened myself to it.


mother called an hour later. Not that her calls are so infrequent that this marked an occasion. In fact, she calls too often, at any hour, now that telephone companies offer flat rates, and the pattern of her calls is appallingly predictable. A bit about her and my dad’s life in Florida (“pretty much the
same” is her nearly unvarying news flash), health reports, the digest of her phone calls to relatives and friends, which always includes a lot of medical and marital updates, and then she cuts to the Message. She varies her approach, embroiders the idea with different designs each time, but strip away the anecdotes, the suggested reading list, the homey examples, and it’s the same mantra:
My daughter is single and I wish she were not.

My moving in with Mackenzie had changed her lyrics but not her aria. We troubled her because we were spinning our wheels on the road from single to married. There wasn’t even an engagement ring after all this time, she was wont to mention. She was right. I suspected that Mackenzie was just as fearful as I of the briar patch we’d enter when we did broach the subject. Neither of us thought the combo of homicide detective and high-school teacher sounded brilliant or even possible for the long haul. He couldn’t help but be unreliable, unavailable, and preoccupied. I couldn’t help but wonder what would be the point of being hitched to someone like that. There were reasons why police divorces were statistically more predictable than movie stars’.

For example: Where was he now, when I needed to talk through this terrible day? As fine a specimen of manhood as C.K. Mackenzie might be, what would be settled about settling down with someone occupationally incapable of being around when it was important to be around? The only way I could guarantee his attention and presence would be to become a corpse.

I never discussed my reasoning process with my mother, nor did she ask, but she saw the end result, and she did not approve. Surreptitiously or openly, subtly or with the force of a sledgehammer, she did not approve.

Today I had good news—I was most likely being fired. In her peculiar logical system—and I suppose now in mine—if I were unemployed, I could no longer complain that C.K.’s job and mine were incompatible. Bag ladies’ hours were about the same as cops’.

Those were my thoughts when the phone rang. I’d been popping off the tough ends of asparagus stalks, slicing mushrooms and carrots, mincing garlic, and cubing pork tenderloin. We
were having company over, or I’d have switched to a comfort menu, ice cream and mashed potatoes.

Our dinner guest, C.K.’s buddy Andy, was further proof of police-related marital spoilage, as he recuperated from his second divorce. We were also hosting his most recent acquisition—someone named Juliana, who obviously didn’t believe in statistical probabilities.

Her impending presence triggered some female Og response to provide something elegant. For Andy I could have made sloppy Joes, or even takeout, and we’d have laughed, had fun, and been satisfied. But for Juliana, or because of her—or, more honestly, because of me—I was making pork stew with polenta and asparagus in orange vinaigrette. Sorbet in a fruit sauce. Doing a Martha Stewart, female muscle-flexing, implying this was the normal run of things up here in our loft. That I didn’t come home bone tired and footsore, burdened with papers to grade, grudges to obsess over, and nothing in the house to cook.

I didn’t even know Juliana. And I hated that I was playing a role out of some repugnant lizard-brain reflex. But that didn’t stop me from whisking the orange vinaigrette.

Maybe I’d study psychology when I was a woman of leisure. Find out what made me brown meat when all I wanted to do is sulk. That’s when the phone rang. Mackenzie, I hoped. Mackenzie with time and a desire to listen and be incredibly sympathetic, and about whom I’d only have good thoughts from now on.

My disappointment must have been audible. “Everything’s fine,” I lied into the phone. “I sound funny because I’m chopping onions, that’s all. I’m having company for dinner, so I can’t talk too—”

Of course she wanted me to go through the menu. I didn’t altogether mind, because Having People Over was on her short list of good things to do, so I recited ingredients and what I was doing with them and how everything was homemade, even the centerpiece. I awaited a round of applause.

Instead there was a moment’s silence followed by a wistful, vaguely disappointed-sounding sigh. I was so stunned, I nearly cut myself with the bread knife. “You know,” she finally said, “I’ll be sixty-five soon. It’s made me do a lot of thinking.”

Never a good sign with my mother, who functioned best on automatic pilot. What would her birthday prompt her to say about my unmarried status? Because that’s where all Bea’s roads lead. I waited to hear something like how fervently she wanted to be young enough to be a real grandmother to my children.

That wasn’t where she was going at all. “Here I am,” she said, “but where have I been? What have I seen? Where did my life go?”

My mother depressed? Introspective? Talk about a terrifying personality change. “Mom, you sound sad.”

“I’m not. Just … seeing things differently. When I look at Beth, I see somebody following in my footsteps.”

Another lecture on why my sister was the good daughter and I was not? Beth: devoted wife and mother of adorable children. Good gardener, cook—and always Has People Over. It sounded a little like an epitaph, but it was Beth.

“It’s too late for her.”

“Too late? For what?”

“To take chances, explore, see the world before she settles down into one little piece of it.”

“She never wanted that. That isn’t Beth. She’s a happy woman.”

“My point exactly.”

I made a mental note to check my horoscope in the paper, and see if there’d been any warning that this day was going to be like no other, and that very little about it would make sense.

I held the phone on my shoulder as I sliced the baguette, then fussed with the fruit and vegetable centerpiece I’d created. And waited, wondering how my mother was going to drag this around to my unmarried state, for surely, despite the detours, she would.

“You,” she finally said. “You, on the other hand, used to have plans, remember? To be a lawyer, or get a master’s in journalism, and once for a while I think it was social work. You wanted to travel, live in other places, see the world. And I kept saying there’s no place like home, settle down, home is where the heart is—whatever. I kept saying it. And I’m afraid you listened. There you are, with a job that doesn’t pay enough, Having People Over. Making polenta and centerpieces. Okay,
you aren’t settled down exactly the way I settled down, but still … you’re settled. But …”

When is he going to marry you?
The muscles between my shoulder blades tightened.

“It’s not too late for you.”

“Too late? Not?” Her message was running in reverse, or my mind was.

“It’s not the best idea on earth to close any doors too soon, Mandy.”

When she talked about closing doors, it was in order to avoid drafts and head colds. She couldn’t mean what it sounded like. She couldn’t mean … life.

“Take your time.”

“I really don’t under—”

“It’s important to be able to admit it when you’re wrong, so I’m admitting it. I’m afraid I always said ‘no,’ or ‘That’s a bad idea,’ but you know what? I was wrong. There. I said it again. Those were good ideas you had. You were right. You’re young, the world’s a different place than it once was, so Daddy and I want to help you start fresh. We want to pay for graduate school. Give you the chance. Anywhere you want to go, anything you want to study. We could do the tuition.”

“Mom! That’s—no, I couldn’t let you. I don’t even know what—I don’t even know if I still—no. That’s so sweet of you, but …”

I hadn’t mentioned losing my job, had I? My brain felt as if somebody had reached in and squeezed it. All in one day— the facts of my life turned upside down.

And her idea—so heretical. So appealing. Reinvent myself. Have a chance at a different career, different everything.

I got a grip on myself. “Thanks, and I love you for offering it, but I couldn’t,” I said. It wasn’t as if my parents were wealthy and could or should subsidize my late adolescence.

“Right. So think about it. After all, I would have liked to have given you that money as a wedding present. I would, in fact, have liked to have made you a wedding, but since it doesn’t look like that’s about to happen—or am I wrong? Is it?”

She was wavering. Reverting. Back to normal.

“Have I missed something?” she asked.

I considered the missing something, now one hour late. “Nope,” I said softly. “You haven’t missed a thing.”

BOOK: Adam and Evil
10.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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