HiLobrow is proud to present the thirty-second installment of Robert Waldron’s novel The School on the Fens. New installments will appear each Saturday for thirty-eight weeks. CLICK HERE to read all installments published thus far.
A decorated Christmas tree surrounded by poinsettias and Christmas candles alight at every table created a festive atmosphere in the gym. One long table was a smorgasbord of food: Greek salad, lasagna, stuffed cabbage, Swedish meatballs, French cheeses, Spanish rice, blintzes, liver paté, Chinese duck and more. Senior Jim Costa served as the DJ. Tim O’Donnell and coach Kerrigan had covered the precious gym floor with an industrial strength mat. The gym was Kerrigan’s Holy of Holies, and he had not been pleased to hand it over to the faculty for a Christmas party. The drink and food he was consuming, however, soothed his pique as he and his wife swirled onto the dance floor.
“Good turnout,” said Maria. “Even the heads of department are here. Under orders from Farrell?”
“Likely,” I said, looking at the crowded bar. “The open bar will cost him plenty.”
She laughed, “It won’t come out of his pocket but the Foundation’s.”
Murkin, the Twins, and the heads of department had gathered in the north corner of the gym. At first they looked unhappy about being here, but after a few drinks their sulks evaporated into laughter; some even took to the dance floor. Various factions of teachers staked out other corners. Karla Willard and the minority teachers congregated near the stands. Most of the new teachers were dancing. Over two hundred people had showed up. Ed and Veronica had also appeared, volunteering to help with the distribution of food.
We were waiting to see if Farrell himself would join the festivities. He rarely attended faculty functions although he was well known for never missing student affairs. When applying for the headmaster’s job, he had emphasized his attendance at all sports events and proms.
The DJ was favoring slow music until Norma complained, requesting something more upbeat. At the first blast of the Rolling Stones, Norma and her date gyrated onto the dance floor. There’s nothing sadder than to watch adults attempting the dance of today’s youth, but Norma, I had to admit, was as fluid as any teenager, and her younger date had a hard time keeping up with her. She looked over toward me, beckoning me to join, and if I had had that third drink, I might have. When she kicked off her high heels, there was no stopping her. And she was sober, which I immensely enjoyed informing Iris who retorted, “The night’s not over.”
Tim O’Donnell was on his way across the gym when Becky Brown, a gorgeous new member of the history department, grabbed his arm and dragged him onto the dance floor. Becky had long auburn hair, the waist of a model, and her braless bust performed its own dance under a white silk blouse. There were plenty of observers who would’ve given anything to be in Tim’s shoes. After a few obligatory motions, Tim raised his hands and mouthed, “I’ve got to go back to work.” Watching from the sidelines, Mason swiftly slid into Tim’s place, and Becky tolerated his intrusion.
As Tim walked by me, he rolled his eyes.
“He should be so lucky,” said Iris. “Who is she, she’s beautiful?”
“Becky Brown, a new history teacher.”
“Now if anyone could help a young man appreciate feminine beauty, she could.”
“Honey, that’s an old wives’ tale.”
“Tim’s gay, and that’s that.”
Iris shook her head. “Such a waste.” I wondered if she would be so critical if she had discovered that our son Leland was gay, a suspicion I entertained during his last visit. Call it a father’s intuition, but I suspected that he might have settled in San Francisco because it had become a Mecca for gay men.
Around ten o’clock, Farrell arrived, and a group of administrators and teachers quickly formed around him. Oates rushed to the bar for Farrell’s scotch and soda, swigging down his own drink for another. Farrell then made the rounds, greeting with smiles and chit-chat all the various groups of teachers and their spouses.
When Farrell glided onto the dance floor with Murkin as his dancing partner, he received a round of applause. Later when the door prizes were announced, an astonished Maria won two tickets to the musical Hair. She exclaimed, “I’ve never won anything in my life!”
“It’s never too late,” I said, delighted for her. “But be forewarned, there’s nudity in the play.”
Maria laughed, “I can’t wait!”
When Farrell headed toward us, Maria quickly disappeared into the crowd.
“I’m glad to see the faculty come together like this,” he said, smugly scanning the party as if he were responsible.
“Well, it’s Christmas, and peace on earth means peace at Classical.” I paused. “To men of good will, that is.”
“I’m tired of dissension,” he said. “It’s time for the faculty to work together.”
“You want us to give you the Pilot Program?”
“A nice Christmas gift for the school.”
“Not for you?”
“Well, I guess I am the school.”
I smirked. He laughed, “I’m joking.” Murkin appeared at his side, hooking her arm through his and leading him toward the bar. She looked unsteady, and I hoped she had someone to drive her home.
Around eleven Iris and Ronny were putting out the coffee and dessert.
“Honey,” Iris complained, “we need a three-way plug for the coffee. There must be one somewhere in this school.”
“There’s one in the teachers’ lounge.”
I felt uneasy walking the dark corridors lit by an eerie moonlight streaming through the windows. I recalled Sheila Dorgan’s story about ghosts haunting the school and smiled at my susceptibility. On the second floor, I heard voices and stood still, momentarily thinking I imagined them. Silence. I waited. Dark portraits of alumni stared down on me. I heard the pattering of what I suspected were mice. Again voices from a nearby classroom. I stood near its threshold.
“Leave me alone,” Tim pleaded. “I want nothing to do with you.”
“You don’t mean that,” Farrell said.
“I need to finish my senior year in peace.”
“I just want us to be together for one more time, just once.”
“But you liked it.”
“I hated it.”
“I can still keep you out of college. One call from me, and you’re finished.”
“Leave me alone and stop calling me. My mother thinks it’s weird.”
“You want that Horgan guy, don’t you?”
“I wasn’t crazy when we showered together. You liked it, and we can do it again.”
“Leave me alone!”
“Once more for old time’s sake.”
Hearing Tim’s rejection was all I needed to hear, and I continued on to the teachers’ lounge.
We were driving home from the party when Iris said, “Honey, you’re quiet. Didn’t you have a good time?”
“Yes. I think everyone had a good time.”
I exited onto the Jamaica Way and drove home through Brookline.
“Farrell looked as if he was having a swell time,” Iris said, leaning her head back on the headrest.
“I could care less.”
“Not very Christmas-like.”
“Christmas and Farrell don’t go together.”
Iris kept on chatting, reliving the party while I half-listened. I recalled her description of Classical as a cesspool. Well, we indeed had a cesspool, and its name was Farrell. And there’s only one thing you can do with a cesspool — remove it.
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”