Hero

Hero

Hero 1920 1440 Karen Zlotnick

This story ends in an earth science classroom on the top floor of a high school, set on a stunning hill in New York’s Hudson Valley. No need to reveal the name of the high school. By now, you’re familiar with it. You’ve met some of the staff members and even some students in dramatic news accounts. You’ve Googled Steve Davidson’s name, which now rolls off your tongue alongside hero. You have one opinion about the boy, another about what should happen to him. Your fear sits comfortably on a shelf with everyone else’s. You like that the incident wasn’t random, that there was a reason. Still, the fear. You allow yourself one moment to consider the reason, the boy’s explanation, which has been made public. Then, perhaps, you wed your thoughts to Steve. Hero of our story. The earth science teacher who they say wrestled a boy with a gun.

 

***

 

Seventeen years before his action catapults him into heroism, he is just a boy, too — a ninth grader in a small northern New Jersey town. He gets after-school and weekend hours at a world-famous bakery on the south side of Route 4. The morning of his first day, his mother shows him a road map which he instantly commits to memory. Left on Hackensack Avenue. Right on Main. Hired to scrub trays, instructed to move faster, he uses his shirt sleeve to wipe flour out of his eyes. He is trying so hard, and he knows he is sweating. He wonders if sweat drips onto a tray, does he scrub it again? He wonders if sweat is a contaminant. He wonders if sweat would make Italian rolls saltier. His boss, Mrs. Di Gennarro, hands him four focaccia squares to take to his mother. He eats all but one as he steers his bike under the Route 4 overpass. He imagines his sweat is sweet. The windows of the realtor’s office spit his reflection back to him as he whizzes by on his bike. His skin appears to him whiter than usual. White like flour. Done with the last square, he raises the back of one hand to his chin. Still no growth. One hand on the handle bars, he uses the other to examine his middle. Softer than focaccia. Doughier than ciabatta. The wind sears his eyes.

 

***

 

For his fourteenth birthday, his mother gives him a decrepit electric guitar and an orange portable amp covered in Kiss stickers. She tells him they belonged to someone else, the son of the woman who put a ticketed For Sale sign on the bulletin board opposite the gum ball machines in Shop Rite. Her birthday hug is filled with pride. She pulls away from him with her hands lingering on his biceps. “A gift for a man,” she says. “My man.” He will never learn to play past the iconic opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” or the first chords of “Smoke on the Water,” but he spends a few days mapping an imaginary band tour of the United States, and for a few months he wears a plain black t-shirt tucked into faded black jeans and calls himself a promising musician. He cannot articulate what he is promising, but he wears the phrase like a belt around his thinning belly. It turns out gyrating wildly around his bedroom, thrusting his hips into the back of his guitar has a benefit. He is losing weight.

 

***

 

His best friend, Marv, introduces him to National Geographic. To soften the excruciating disappointment of not being cool, not even having a chance of ever being cool, they name it Earth Porn. They hide the magazines from Marv’s brother, Lawrence, who, they’re sure would out them all over school if he knew that these are the magazines which contain the photographs their adolescent eyes crave.

In secret, they finger the yellow-rimmed covers until they’re tattered and dog-ear pages with pictures that carry them to exotic lands — Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Burundi, Guam. They press Post-its onto the foreheads of indigenous people, onto the crests of craggy mountain ranges. Vibrant images stir them. Lionesses on the plains, waiting, wearing worry on their broad faces. The arcs of remote stone bridges reflected in ominous waterways. Red rock mountains stretching into the sun’s blinding rays. A great white shark lurching through spray, its teeth bared at the sky. Close-ups of sea rocks which dot white sand on coastlines far away from New Jersey. Who took these?

 

***

 

When he enters his senior year of high school, his father has already been gone six years. He has worked hard to erase this abandonment. His success is most obvious when he and his mother bake cupcakes side by side, belting Led Zeppelin. If the sun refused to shine, I would still be loving you. When the mountains crumble to the sea, there will still be you and me. His mother’s voice sounds like candy to him. M&M’s shuffling in a bowl. Candy corn on a ceramic plate. Skittles in a glass mug.

 

***

 

Coors, Domino’s, Twinkies, pretzels dipped in Nutella, and a stash of Baby Ruth Bars in his dorm room desk drawer have given him back his middle. He’s growing a beard, and the girl across the hall, whose eyes look like the sky, reaches her fingers to his chin to let him know she approves. She teases him relentlessly — even a little cruelly — about Earth Porn. He owns his dork, he tells her, and for some reason he can’t explain, her smile reminds him of a hot air balloon.

 

***

 

When they are twenty-three, Marv loses his hair to treatment. Steve kids Marv about the roundness of his head, the few hairs that refused to jump ship. He pledges to himself that for Marv, he will be buoyant every minute they’re together: Crazy Eights, microwave popcorn, Marty Stouffer’s Wild America. Most days he works at the bakery as clean-up in the back. Mrs. Di Gennarro stops in to see him now and again, kids him about those long-ago focaccia squares that never made it home. “These are for Marv,” she says, handing him a waxy bag filled with rolls. “Make sure they get there.” Her wink, friendly as it is, reminds him of the terror in his belly. He holds it down, this fear — keeps it there, keeps it from uttering a sound, as if Marv’s life depends on it.

Steve doesn’t yet know he wants to teach; that will come later. In the summer, Marv finishes his last treatment, and the two of them load some gear into Marv’s old Subaru Forester and drive west. They forego the park’s trail map and hike aimlessly through Rocky Mountain National Park. They snap pictures of musky elk lazing by a stream, of sand lilies bowing to the sun, of the view from high — wispy treetops tickling low-lying clouds, of a bobcat sharpening its claws on an old oak. They collect rocks as souvenirs and ignore the signs that say you can’t take anything from the park, including rocks. The call that brings news of remission comes, finally, and they celebrate by extending their trip and scalping tickets to Tom Petty at Red Rocks. They pay way too much, but what the fuck.

 

***

 

On a New Jersey beach, under a homemade canopy of carefully selected stones, he marries the girl whose smile is a hot air balloon. Before the ceremony begins, he watches his mother shuffle toward her seat on the right arm of Best Man Marv, who places his left hand warmly over hers. Mother and son mouth the words to the Led Zeppelin song the guitarist is plucking, their eyes fixed on one another. The wind sears his eyes.

His bride chides him about needing to suck in his gut to close his suit, about the pallor of his bare feet in the sand, sand white like flour. He watches as she hugs his mother, the way her hands linger on his mother’s upper arms, the way she throws back her head to laugh, then the way she leans in — her ear to his mother’s soft voice, the way his mother palms her cheek, the way she leans into his mother’s hand as if it were a gloriously soft pillow.

 

***

 

Their cabin sits on three wooded acres in the Hudson Valley. His neighbors, a retired farrier to the east and a young lawn mower mechanic to the west, stop by for coffee every Saturday morning. He bakes for them — sometimes an odd combination of focaccia squares and cupcakes. On this Saturday, they ride him about his Master’s Degree certificate, newly framed, ready to hang in his classroom. “Geology?” they ask. He glances at his wife who, with mischief in her eyes, is threatening to utter Earth Porn, and he pleads silently, Please no. She whispers in his ear, “Don’t you own your dork?” The farrier congratulates Steve with a fatherly sideways embrace. His muscular hand lingers and massages Steve’s broad shoulder, while the mechanic nods in approval. “But Dude, seriously. Rocks?” The mechanic’s gravelly voice feels gentle in Steve’s ears.

 

***

 

She is out of bed for the first time in four days. She answers the phone, and he can tell it’s his mother by the way she leans in. She describes the miscarriage as painless, natural, complete. Sad but not tragic. But he overhears this: “It takes two seconds to get used to a pregnancy. It will take longer to accept the loss.” And in his chest he feels a shattering so sharp he must clutch the front of his hoodie to stave off the pain. The farrier and the mechanic hand her lilies in a vase.

 

***

 

It is late spring the first time he spots the coyote pup romping after the farrier’s chickens. He knows the farrier would insist he chase the pup away, but he’s so taken with his bouncing. The hens run in circles, squawking, screaming. The pup backs away. He has caught it on video, and he shows his class the next day. His students say, “That is so cool,” and he takes it to mean he is so cool.

During lunch, Steve is hovering over a ninth grade boy who has asked for extra help identifying rocks. Steve handles the collection as if they’re jewels, presenting one at a time in the cradle of his palms. The boy insists he can’t see what makes each one unique. Steve uses words like igneous, strata, mica. The boy laughs uncertainly when Steve sings those words into a tune he plays on air guitar. Steve sees that this is a moment of relief for this boy — yes, this is the boy of our story — though Steve cannot tell, relief from what? Instead of asking, though, he commits to his song, and the boy, holding his aching belly, succumbs to laughter for an instant.

Another ninth grader, Ariana Robinson, and a tenth grade friend she calls Mishy stand at the doorway to the classroom, interrupting the music — can you call it that? — coming from Steve’s mouth. He beckons them inside, and they laugh, too, before Steve and the boy get back to work. The girls begin to wander around the classroom idly, examining various specimens and their labels, and unlabeled rocks, too, which might have or might not have come from a national park in Colorado. They fiddle with the skeleton, which belongs to the bio teacher who shares this room and hangs from a hook screwed into the back of a cervical vertebra. They adjust the goofy white baker’s hat that sits on its skull and read aloud the name of the New Jersey bakery embroidered on the front. They ask questions about the pup: “How old do you think he is now? Do you think he’ll be okay when winter comes?” Ariana wants Mishy to see the video. “That is so, so cool, Mr. D.” He offers Ariana extra credit for an oral report on coyotes in the Hudson Valley, and the boy, who can only lift his eyes from the rocks for an instant, says to Ariana, “You should do it.” Suddenly her face radiates pride and responsibility. So cool, indeed.

 

***

 

The pup hangs around his cabin, appearing almost every evening. He assumes the pup’s mother is gone; this guy is on his own. He blinks hard at the thought of that loss, familiar to him. He knows full-well he shouldn’t, but he begins a nightly ritual of leaving table scraps outside: bits of lamb chop on the bone, sweet potatoes, salmon skin, corn cobs, chicken wings, apple cores, too-soft blueberries, an occasional focaccia square, half-eaten Twinkies. In the daylight as he cuts grass, lays mulch, plants marigolds, he eyes the pup who keeps distant company. He names the pup Marv and texts Marv to tell him. The pup grows large, his eyes green and glowing. The wind turns cold, and a chicken disappears from the farrier’s coop. Then another. The shot rings through the woods one afternoon; its unmistakable pop races through the pines until it pierces his ears and echoes in his throat.

 

***

 

You know it’s coming, so you brace yourself. I brace myself, too. Gingerly, we lift our fear from the shelf, acknowledge its spidery reach in our chests, in our upper arms. We cradle it as if we might whisper in its ear: Don’t grow too big. Don’t exaggerate yourself here. The boy had a reason, an explanation. It wasn’t random. He never intended to hurt anyone.

 

***

 

The story ends in Steve Davidson’s earth science classroom; on the top floor of the high school when a ninth grade boy irresolutely plucks a pistol from his backpack and drops it onto the floor. It doesn’t matter that the boy is revolted by it, that he recoils from it like a chicken from a coyote, that he rushes to the window as the content in his stomach hurls itself into the afternoon breeze, that he collapses immediately into the doughy middle of Steve Davidson who has wrapped his large, loving arms around him before they both crumple to the floor in a heap. It doesn’t matter that this is the boy who cannot tell one rock from another, who cannot be relieved of the weight he carries for more than one moment at a time. Later, it will matter just a little that the boy says he hid the gun in his backpack to keep it from his depressed father, who, he fears, might do the unthinkable. But for now, what matters most is that the gun, gray and cold, is spinning senselessly on the linoleum. What matters most is that ninth grade children are screaming and running and that this causes every soul in the hallway to do the same.

When the police arrive in record time and stare past the barrels of their pointed guns, they find a big, soft man cradling a boy. Both the man and the boy are weeping. The man strokes the boy’s face, uses the back of his hand to wipe the tears which have collected on the boy’s hairless chin. The man leans his head close to the boy’s ear and whispers something, which the boy acknowledges by nodding and leaning his head on the man’s giant shoulder. The police pause before instructing the man to get up and step away from the boy.

It is one of the policemen who talks to a reporter, describes how by the time they busted into the classroom, broke the door off its hinges, toppled desks and chairs, flung notebooks and pencil cases, shattered the skeleton in the corner, the boy had already been wrestled into submission. He credits the teacher who wrestled him: he is the hero. Our teacher. Our hero.

 

***

 

When you talk about this story tomorrow over the stall wall in the bathroom, when you comb your local newspaper for details, when you call your sister, your son, your old camp friend to spread a story about a hero, will you pause? Will you have re-shelved your fear, tucked it behind some other intangible notion? Perhaps understanding? Compassion? Love?

Or will it still be in your arms — swelling in size and ferocity, thick sweat oozing from its monstrous skin — as it swipes at your face and blocks your view?

Header photography © Elle Danbury.

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