Authors: Alexander Maksik
YOU DESERVE NOTHING
214 West 19th St.
New York NY 10011
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2011 by Alexander Maksik
First publication 2011 by Europa Editions
An excerpt from this novel
was first published in
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Cover illustration by Marina Sagona
ISBN 978-1-60945-912-3 (US)
ISBN 978-1-60945-910-9 (World)
For my parents.
And in memory of Tom Johnson.
I do not want to choose between
the right and wrong sides of the world,
and I do not like a choice to be made.
24 YEARS OLD
ou live in one place. The next day you live somewhere else. It isn’t complicated. You get on a plane. You get off.
People are always talking about home. Their houses. Their neighborhoods. In movies, it’s where they came from, where they came up. The movies are full of that stuff. The street. The block. The diner. Italian movies. Black movies. Jewish movies. Brooklyn or whatever.
But I never really got that. The streets were never running through my blood. I never loved a house. So, all that nothing-like-home stuff doesn’t really register. The way you can be living in one place and then in a few hours you can be living somewhere else, that’s what I think about when I think about home. You wake up, do what you do, eat, go to sleep, wake up, eat, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. The same thing for days, months, years and then, one day, you’re no longer there.
People always say how hard it must be to move from place to place. It isn’t.
When I got here I was seventeen. We moved from Riyadh where we’d been living for nearly two years. I had three weeks to pack my things, to “prepare” myself. That was my father—three weeks to “prepare” myself. I don’t know what that means really. It took me an hour to pack my bags. I didn’t tell anyone at school I was moving.
The year ended, I kicked around the pool for a while and then we were on a plane and gone. That’s just the way it happened. I didn’t feel much of anything. I was only amazed again that a world simply disappears behind you, that one life becomes another life becomes another life becomes another.
And then we lived in Paris.
We lived in Dubai, Shanghai, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Jerusalem, and Riyadh.
And then we lived in Paris. And Paris was different because it was the last place we moved as a family. The last place imposed upon me.
38 YEARS OLD
he optimism, the sense of possibility and hope comes at the end of August. There are new pens, unmarked novels, fresh textbooks, and promises of a better year. The season of reflection is not January but June. Another year passed, the students gone, the halls silent. You’re left there alone. The quiet of a school emptied for the summer is that of a hotel closed for winter, a library closed for the night, ghosts swirling through the rooms.
There is the quick disintegration. The bell rings and the whole thing explodes into the bright day. You walk into the sunshine, dazed by the light.
* * *
The windows are open. I’m in the corner of the room. The June breeze sways the poplars on the far edge of the field. The halls are quiet, the students in assembly.
On the walls are fifteen portraits of the Bundren family. There’s a poster advertising a forgotten RSC production of
the Cartier-Bresson photograph of Jean-Paul Sartre with Jean Pouillon on the Pont des Arts. There’s another of Sartre at the Café de Flore, one of Camus smoking a cigarette, an old
Cool Hand Luke
poster, and one for the premiere of
There’s Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic podium—heads bowed, fists raised. Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, a bulletin board covered with poems, Hemingway standing with Sylvia Beach in front of Shakespeare & Company.
A steel desk sits at the front of the room. It is, like everything else here, worn and broken. Heavy gray curtains hang from an ancient and long-defunct pulley line. Fluorescent lights, thin brown carpet. All of it in the style of seventies-era American public schools—generic and shabby.
There are two identical floors—long corridors lined with metal lockers and classrooms. A high black steel security gate surrounds the school. Once you’re inside you might as well be in Phoenix.
With the breeze moving through, my classroom is cool. In a few hours the buildings will be drained of students and with them will go all their noise and theater. Everything is finished, essays graded, final reports written.
The last day of school. We return final exams. We say goodbye. They clear out their things, buses arrive, and the broken building falls into silence.
* * *
I’m waiting for my first-period sophomores. There are classes like these—students possessed of grace and kindness and intelligence, all thrown together for the year. They arrive and you know. You become a family. It is a kind of love affair.
At the far end of the school they’re streaming out of the auditorium from assembly. Mr. Spencer has already wished them a good summer. He’s read them something—a quotation, a poem he finds inspirational. Mr. Goring scratches the back of his head as he reviews the day’s schedule. He reminds them that all lockers must be empty. There will be trash cans in the halls. Please use them. Respect your school, students. Do not run. Please, no running.
Released, they come up the hallway, some wave as they pass my room.
“What up, Mr. S?”
“Have a good summer, Mr. S, try not to party too hard.”
Julia comes in pulling her blond curly hair back into a ponytail.
She’s the first.
“Last day of school,” I say.
“Oh really? Is it?” She rolls her eyes.
“That’s what I’ve heard. Pretty sad.”
I sit on my desk and sort through a stack of exams until I find hers.
“So,” I say.
“So, listen Mr. S., I’m going to miss you this summer and I want you to know that I really loved your class and that I think you’re a great teacher.” She blushes. “So, thank you for everything. You kind of changed my life this year.”
“Thank you, Julia. I’ve loved having you as my student.”
She looks at the floor.
Steven Connor struts into the classroom, short and bluff and pushing his chest out.
“Mr. S.!” He says, extending his hand, a little businessman. “How you doing, Mr. S.? You know I’m going to miss this class, dude. Why don’t you teach juniors? You suck. What the hell am I going to do next year?”
He cocks his head to the side and looks me in the eye. We shake hands. Then he notices Julia.
“Wait, am I like, interrupting something?”
Julia giggles. “No, Steve.”
Mazin, a thin, grinning Jordanian, runs into the room and throws his arms around me.
“Dude, Mr. S.
Are we going to hang this summer? Because I’m
going to miss this class, man. But it’s cool, you’re coming to my party right? You got the invitation?”
“I’m coming. I’ll be there. Sunday night. I’m there.”
The classroom slowly fills.
I sit on the edge of my desk as I always do. I look around the room and face them. They expect something from me, some conclusion, some official end to the year.
I push myself from the desk and stand.
“Last day of school. A few minutes left in our year together. I have your exams and I’ll give them to you before you leave but I want to tell you a few things first. I want you to know that it isn’t often that I have a class like yours. I was very lucky this year. You’re exceptional. You’ve been honest, kind, funny, adventurous, open and generous. You’ve been passionate and interested and you have come here day after day after day always willing to consider the things I’ve said to you. My dream as a teacher has always been to walk into my classroom, sit down and participate in an intelligent, exciting discussion of literature and philosophy. We are smart people sitting in a room talking about beautiful things, ugly and difficult things. You’ve been that class. I’m grateful to you. You’ve reminded me of why I’m here and I’ve loved teaching you.”
Julia begins to cry. Mazin looks at his desk.
“You know what I believe is important. You know what I’ll say to you about choice, about your lives, about time. You remember, I hope, the discussions we’ve had about “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which was written by whom, Mazin?”
There’s a long pause. “John Keats, Mr. Silver,” he says proudly.
“John Keats.” I smile at him. “You’ll forget most of what we’ve discussed in this classroom. You’ll forget Wilfred Owen and
The Grapes of Wrath
and Thoreau and Emerson and Blake and the difference between romance and Romanticism, Romanticism and Transcendentalism. It will all become a blur, a swirl of information, which adds to that spreading swamp in your brain. That’s fine. What you must not forget, however, are the questions these writers compelled you to ask yourselves—questions of courage, of passion and belief. And do not forget this.”
I stop. It is very quiet. A locker slams in the hallway. Classes are shortened today and I know the bell will ring soon. I look at them. I mean it all, but teaching is also performance.
“What?” Steven asks. “Dude, we don’t have time. What? Don’t forget what?”
. Don’t forget what it felt like. All of us here. What happened in this room. How much you’ve changed since you walked through the door, morons that you were, nine months ago.”
“Thank you. Thank you for all of it.” There is the moment of quiet and then, as if orchestrated, the bell rings.
They stay in their seats. There are other students in the hallways. Lockers slamming closed. I pick up their exams and call their names. They hug me. Mazin first. He pushes the side of his head against my chest. They thank me. They wish me a good summer. I can’t speak. They file out into the hall and disappear into the summer.
It was, I think, my best year.
* * *
That afternoon there’s a barbeque for the faculty. Tables on the grass. A PA playing bad disco meant to be ironic. The kind of thing teachers shouldn’t be listening to at school. Shouldn’t be listening to anywhere. Champagne in plastic cups.
From my office window I can see them collecting around the hors d’oeuvres table. Jean-Paul, who runs the cafeteria, walks around grinning with a tray of
. I’m putting off the walk down the stairs and across the grass to the party. I don’t want to pretend to care what they’re doing for the summer. I don’t want to drink cheap champagne and smile. I don’t want to play softball. So I stay in my office and clean out my desk. I file papers—notes from students, parents. Articles I want to save, poems, short stories. I throw away old quizzes, letters from the College Board.
The halls are silent. The last buses have rolled out of the parking lot taking the students away. There are papers and pens lying on the floor, trash cans overflowing, a pile of forgotten clothes, an old lunch rotting in a paper bag,
The Catcher in the Rye
with its cover torn off.
When my desk is clean—pens in their cup, books lined up, drawers emptied—I walk out into the hall and down the stairs toward the picnic. Nothing left to do. No classes to prepare, nothing to grade, no one who needs to talk.
* * *
Later I sit on the grass with Mia, drinking champagne. She hands me her cup and raises her arms. Released from its pins, her hair spills down her back. Light brown, but now in the sun nearly red. Mia, so calm here, so sure of herself, and so off balance in the city.
Her face in repose falls to a frown and sitting alone in a café she is rarely approached. Only the most brazen strangers talk to her and they’re the least appealing. They frighten and offend her, these men who believe a pretty woman has the obligation to smile, that she owes the world her beauty.
Even the way she pins it, there are always pieces coming undone, strands of hair falling around her neck, grazing her cheek.
We sit with our shoes off. She’s leaning back on her elbows.
“So, that was the year.”
“Thank God,” she says without opening her eyes. “I’m so tired. You?”
“Exhausted. But it was good and I’m sad. I’ll miss those kids. A lot of them.”
“They love you. You’re changing lives,” she laughs. “You’re a life changer.”
I shake my head
“You know it’s true. They love you. You’re a cult leader.”
Just then Mickey Gold lumbers over. Approaching seventy, red-faced, a wild cartoon—huge in body and gesture. The kind of man you’d expect behind a desk at a talent agency in Queens. But he’s been teaching Biology here for the last thirty years and as a result he’s gone slightly mad.
From ten yards out he calls, “Mia and Will! Want a refill?”
He says it again, working the rhyme, making it into a song. He comes carrying a bottle of champagne, snatched from the bar. Mia and I exchange quick glances. I like Mickey. He’s exotic here, so decidedly not French, lacking in subtlety and apparently unaware of himself. He is sloppy, unmannered, and loud. Yet he speaks French fluently, punctuates his English sentences with emphatic “
.” I’m impressed and embarrassed by him.
He eases himself down onto the grass across from us. It’s difficult work. He’s a tall man. Six foot two, a firm and significant belly. He pats Mia’s knee and says, “Another one down the shitter.”
* * *
She hasn’t spoken a word to Mickey since the Academic Achievement awards two weeks ago when he stood up, walked to the podium and said, “This year I’ll be giving the award to a young lady who, along with being an excellent writer and a gifted, budding biologist, also happens to smell like a rose.”
Mia, sitting next to me in the auditorium, let out a pained gasp and then covered her mouth with her hand.
He continued, “She’s a young woman whom I was happy to see every day and whose absence in class always made me a little sad. It isn’t every year that I teach a young woman whose talents are equaled by a lovely midriff. Beauty and brains. Personally, I can’t wait to see what she becomes. This year’s award goes to Colette Shriver.”
Colette, face flushed, walked to the podium. It was to her great dismay (and to Mia’s) that she was that day wearing a white T-shirt cut short enough to reveal her stomach, a small silver ring in her navel. Mickey stood at the podium smiling, arms outstretched, awaiting her with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, his nose cocked and ready for her rosy scent.
Poor Colette, mortified, momentarily swallowed up by Mickey’s mighty arms. Compelled to walk to the stage, ignoring the suggestive whispers of the boys on the aisle—yeah Colette, give him some tongue.
“To reduce academic achievement to her midriff? He’s a teacher! He’s disgusting.”
We were eating lunch together, whispering in a far corner of the cafeteria. I smiled.
“What? You think it was funny?”
“He doesn’t know. He’s oblivious.”
“That is not an excuse. Come on, Will. He’s a teacher. You know what he said was horrible. It isn’t funny. He’s a teacher. You shouldn’t take it so lightly.”