THURSDAY: Free Radical

BY GERHARD WETZEL

Copyright is held by the author.

HAD TINA SEEN Ricardi draw the knife out of his vest? Detective Sergeant Wolchuk wants to know. He’s a big man with receding hair and the crevices on his face reveals a life time of asking questions for which the answer did not matter.

“Really, it was nothing,” she answers. “No harm was done. It was a joke really.” Her voice quivers, the shock of the incident still settling in her.

“Carrying concealed weapons in school is no joke. It’s a felony.” She knows he’s right. God knows Cartwright and the Board have issued enough memos on the subject. You read about violence occurring in other schools but never in your own. And what violence had occurred? None. The whole thing is overblown. She knows the outcome iss her fault and now there’s nothing she could do to help Ricardi.

“Did Ricardi pull the knife and threaten you?” His manner makes her feel guilty. She feels more threatened from this crumbled suit standing before her than she did when Ricardi waved the knife. She senses that if she doesn’t give him what he wants he could make life difficult.

“I did not see him pull the knife,” she answers, smiling, trying to soften him. “And he did not threaten me,” she adds to deflect his look of disgust. Detective Sergeant Wolchuk is not pleased with her answer. He does not write any of her comments in the little notebook, which he holds open in his hands. Why are you protecting this punk?, his look says. Her mind explodes with alternatives. If I had known that it would have the result that it had I would never have mentioned the knife casually to Joan at lunch. I should have known she could never keep a secret. But I felt so good about how the morning had gone. All my Alt Ed students were present, the first time in a month. The lesson was going well. I blame myself for what happened. None of that she says to Detective Sergeant Wolchuk. He is not interested. His mind is made up.

She explains how her back was to the class when she supposes the knife had been drawn. “I was drawing the formation of a hydrogen chloride free radical on the board,” she says. “For the alternative education group visual presentation makes the concepts easier to understand. I was writing and explaining how a free radical loses an electron resulting in an un-pairing.
As I continued to draw I reminded them that next week we were doing frog dissections. I have found it helps attendance if I tell them what’s coming.”

While drawing and writing she had heard a low murmur that males make when something cool attracts their attention. She has heard the same thing from Rodger, her current live in, and his buddies when they watch sports and she bends over to pull a book from the shelf below the TV. Even in my mid-40s my ass still looks good, she thinks. Of course she doesn’t say any of that to Detective Sergeant Wolchuk.

As the primitive male murmur went through the classroom she had turned and seen Ricardi doing his imaginary frog dissection in the air. In his hand had been a knife — not your ordinary kitchen knife, something larger, but not a machete either. It had had a wide blade curving to a sharp tip. It had looked new and she had wondered from which store he had stolen the knife.

The others, Cooper, Wang, Burns, Webster, Perilli, had all grinned. Webster shows a perfect smile that must have made some orthodontist rich, which he now mocks by refusing to brush his teeth. She gauges her time with him by the yellow tartar forming. She has a phobia about clean teeth. How long does it take to brush each day? She has the same problem with Rodger. He only brushes before bed when he wants sex.

Ricardi had looked her straight in the eye — his deep blues almost burning. For once they had been clear; it had been the first time in months she had seen him clean. He had no money. When they have nothing, funds or drugs, they come to listen to her.

She had smiled slightly. It had not been a smile of fear but deep down, she had known this could have become serious. She had told Ricardi that his technique was a little primitive for what she envisioned.

“Why don’t you come closer Tina,” he had said, still smiling. “And I’ll show you my technique.” The murmur had gotten louder and Cooper had given an encouraging ‘all right’ to his buddy. Ricardi had insisted in calling her by her given name, which was all right with her, but Cartwright, her principal, and Joan think it shows weakness.

Tina knows they all like to think they are strong and independent, but Ricardi is the only leader among them. He’s the only one with guts to challenge her. The only one who would pull a weapon. For all she knows the others may have concealed ones, but none other than Ricardi would expose it. To deal with him she ignores his antics most of the time. She lets him dream his little schemes and concentrates on the others. Rodger, a reader of Soldier of Fortune, tells her she is a good military strategist, using divide and conquer. It was one of the few times when Rodger taok any interest in what she does.

She had stepped from around the desk and slowly walked to where Ricardi was sitting. Every day that he attends class, which some weeks isn’t often, he sits in a different location, like a four year old playing hide and seek. As she walked slowly towards him he had wiggled his knife. She hadn’t known the kind of knife he’d been holding. The closer she had gotten the larger it had loomed. The knotting in her stomach had increased. She’d assume one swipe could have severed an artery. Later the cops told her it was a hunting knife.

The room had been totally quiet, even Wang had stopped watching porn on his laptop. He does it to piss her off, but she tells him it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before. It is a lie but he’s never caught on. She had tudied acting for four years and now it was finally paying off — fooling young men with nothing better to do. If internet porn were on the curriculum Wang would get an A.

As she had walked towards Ricardi, her mind had raced with images of her standing before him, breathing heavily. He had continued to smile, his eyes burning into hers. Slowly he raises the knife towards her belly and one by one cuts the buttons off her blouse, moving upward deliberately. She hears the buttons fall unto the linoleum, their ting the only sound in the universe. She is proud of her ample bosom and Ricardi wants to see it.

She had blinked quickly, washing the romantic notions from her mind. A strange time to have a Harlequin moment, she had thought. She had found herself standing before his desk. Nothing had been said. She had looked into his clear eyes. Her insides had knotted beyond forbearance. His smile had abated and slowly he had placed the knife on his desk. She had won. The first time Ricardi had given in to her. She had returned to the blackboard and continued to draw free radicals. She had heard a collective sigh of disappointment from the rest.

Perhaps, she had reflected later, the high from her victory over Ricardi caused her to relate the incident to Joan at lunch.

After lunch she had begun again describing the formation of free radicals. She loves the science part of the curriculum. There is precision and outcomes can be predicted. She tries to impart the inevitability of the process to her students. How particles invisible to us can change our lives forever. Sometimes she tries out her concepts on Rodger. He listens politely but she can tell he does not understand. At times she thinks he should be in her Alt Ed class. He displays the same difficulty in managing his own life as her students do. He does not work well with others, resents authority, and has basic gaps in knowledge and concentration. If her mother were still alive, they would have had words over Rodger.

No one had been taking notes, they never do. She is known as a soft touch. When necessary she gives them enough information so they will pass. Tina Martin has a reputation for being too lenient with the Alt Ed kids. If she goes by the book they will never achieve anything. Besides they will leave without passing and maybe just maybe one might make something of themselves. Rodger says it is not her role to mother them, but they are the only kids she has. He refuses to give her any. Do your job and forget about them, he tells her over and over again. But she can’t let go. She dreams about them sometimes. She dreams about Ricardi mostly and it is not a knife that he is holding.

Explaining about the unpaired number of electrons that result in a free radical, she had noticed Principal Cartwright through the window in the door. Beside him she had seen a dark shadow, black almost and then all hell had broken loose. The front and back doors fhad flown open and two guys dressed in solid black had burst through each entrance waving automatic weapons. “Everyone on the floor, now!” one of the shadows had yelled. On these guys’ backs it says ‘Police’ in capital white letters.

Cartwright had pulled her aside. “What the fuck are you doing?” she had yelled at him as he tried to pull her from the room. All six student had assumed the position and while two cops guarded the others two had searched Ricardi for the knife. They had checked the others, but it was Ricardi they were after.

“You should have come to me directly,” Cartwright had whispered in her ear. It was then she knew Joan had told him. Cartwright thinks Tina avoids him, ever since he made a pass at her just before Rodger moved in. Nor is he pleased about the way she constantly asks questions about his wife and children — a reminder that his obligations make her inaccessible. She avoids him not because of his obligations, but because he is an idiot who pulls stupid stunts like this.

The swat team had cuffed Ricardi. He had stared in her direction, thinking that she had turned him in. Their eyes had meet momentarily and his blues had turned red, wishing he could have her blood. What else could he think? “Is cuffing him necessary?” she had asked one of the swat guys who seems more intent on speaking into his headset than listening to her.

“They know their job Tina,” Cartwright had said.

The other five were clean, at least from holding concealed weapons and as soon as they were released they left. Wang didn’t even shut down his computer and she knows she will never see him again. Ricardi had been muscled past a corridor of students to a waiting police car.

Her insides are burning with betrayal. The classroom is sealed off and she expects at any moment that yellow police tape will be wrapped around her as part of the official investigation. After speaking to Detective Sergeant Wolchuk, Cartwright sends her home but not before he tells her to see him in the morning to discuss her behaviour.

Rodger’s car is in the drive. He was supposed to go out today to find a job but she suspects that he slept in and watched TV most of the day, as he’s done for the past month since he was laid off at the furniture factory. Rodger is a chair specialist, which means that he assembles whatever pieces they give him and hope it looks like a chair. The Chinese apparently have mastered this feat and going forward the chairs will be imported and cheaper.

She does not want to see him. Her insides are ready to burst. Her heart is beating wildly.

Entering her little bungalow, she sees Rodger lying on the couch, the TV expounding the wisdom of Dr. Phil. “Hey babe, home early,” he says, without getting up trying to roll his beer empties under the couch. She says nothing and goes into the kitchen. The sink is a history of his day with breakfast and lunch dishes soaking in tepid water. He has put nothing into the dishwasher.

She sees the bread knife and knows that she could push it into him without any remorse. She needs to strike out at someone. She hears the pop of a beer can in the other room. The TV is droning on about obese people and she wonders what would happen if she took the bread knife and waved it before Rodger the way Ricardi had done to her. No one would miss Rodger, least of all her, just as no one will miss Ricardi. No, she will miss Ricardi. She will miss the challenges that he presented every time that they were together. Rodger does not challenge. He occupies space— her space — space that she knows she has to reclaim.

She pours herself a vodka. The bottle she purchased last week is nearly empty. His job search is inversely proportional to his liquor consummation. She is not surprised. He has no drive and needs none as long as she works. He expects she will support him in exchange for his company and the occasional tussle in bed. She knows that she has grown weary of him, but like a dying pet he is more trouble to get rid of than to keep.

As she tells him that she is going to take a bath he yells, “What’s for dinner?”

Water. The healing power of the River Jordan her mother had called it. All Tina’s major life events have occurred in water. When she was eight her mother waited until she was in the bath to tell her that her father had left them. When her heart was broken the first of many times her mother insisted she have a soothing bath. Amid tears and sobs her mother dunked her head backwards and held her under, struggling, until survival and breathing took precedence over her romantic notions of a life with a loser like Billy Cameron.

Sitting in water her mother told her about the lumps in her breast. They seemed, her mother said, smaller in the buoyant water. She took Tina’s hand and made her feel the intruding knots. They weren’t exactly hard as she had expected but plastic and malleable something you could play with when alone. Magically you were drawn to them like your tongue is to a chipped tooth. Perhaps, her mother speculated, she should spend the rest of her life in her aquatic paradise.

Tina sinks under the water. Here in the watery prism all the epiphanies in her life have occurred. Here her life is clear, as precise as the science she teaches. There are no free radicals. Everything is paired and ordered. She feels she could lie here forever and wonders if that was how her mother had felt. It was in water that Tina found her. After her second mastectomy, all blue, her skin bloated like an overblown bicycle tire. When she raised her up her chest looked like no man’s land. Stitches reminiscent of trench warfare everywhere over which the cancer had spread silently like mustard gas.

In her warm bath Tina realizes that her Alt Ed career is over. The group will not re-appear. In a way her class was like Rodger’s furniture job; she is given pieces to assemble with the hope that young men would emerge. She will miss them. Cooper, the brightest of the group, always erased his correct answers on the multiple choice questions so that he would not get passing grades and be ostracized by the others. Wang with his computer skills gone wrong. And Webster his yellowing smile reflecting his decay. Burns who never spoke and Perilli whose face reflected domestic abuse. All gone forever, lost. Free radicals at last.

Ricardi will be charged. Detective Sergeant Wolchuk had said he had priors. Even if Tina swore that no harm was intended, that he was just joking, he would not get off. The knife condemned him. His blue eyes burned with betrayal forever in her mind.

Tomorrow Cartwright will re-assign her to a regular schedule. A class were students take notes so that in a few weeks they could repeat her words back to her without understanding anything.

Cartwright would be hard on her initially and then he would relent and give her a warning, chalking up emotional dividends to be collected later when he finds out that Rodger is no longer in her life.

She hurries dinner. She wants to catch the six o’clock news to see if there is any news about Ricardi. The weapon incident is the top story showing police cars and swat vans parked around the school while students are shown leaving. She does not recall an evacuation order so assumes that what she is seeing is the normal dismissal time. The students look dismayed at the police vehicles while the voice-over describes the knife incident. There is a picture of Ricardi; his face hazed on TV, cuffed, being stuffed into a police car. It is reported that no reason had yet been found for the incident, no note, no internet message, and no comment from the accused.

Cartwright is interviewed on camera. Behind him, to his left, stands Joan, brushing thin strands of hair from her face. His sweaty face oozing the excitement of the moment, looking into the camera and stating that through the alert actions of a teacher, he turns slightly with a nod towards Joan, any serious violence had been avoided. Tina realizes that Cartwright is playing as though Joan were the responsible teacher. He is afraid of what she might say. He does not want her to speak to the press. There is no mention of her or any pictures although she was certain that she had been caught on camera as she left. He will tell her he did it for her own protection, trying to collect more points. The voice-over speaks about student violence in the region. Students are interviewed about violence in general since none were aware about what had gone on around them.

Finally the program concludes with Detective Sergeant Wolchuk declaring that it was fortunate that there had been no victims. Vigilance, such as that demonstrated by the teacher, he says is the only way to prevent such incidents.

“Wow babe,” Rodger says, “That’s your school. No wonder you were home early.” He holds his arms open for a hug, which she rejects. She walks out the front door to get some air while Rodger resumes his supine position on the couch, waiting for Jeopardy to start.

Late spring is in the air, a hint of summer in the slight breeze. The setting sun shines brilliant orange in the West. It will be a fine day tomorrow. Detective Sergeant Wolchuk was wrong. There were victims.

Tomorrow she will resume teaching her regular classes as though everything was the same.

2 comments

  1. John Lennox

    Gerhard: I’ve been trying to get in touch with you just to see how you are and, lo and behold, I find that you have reinvented yourself. You’re not in the phone book and not listed on Canada 411, so this is my message — send me an email and tell me how to get in touch with you Congratulations. Best wishes, John

  2. Jim Coady

    Gerhard,
    Funny, I have been doing the same thing as your friend John…looking to catch up. Been awhile. I’ve got an assignment now that takes me to Toronto every two weeks and am big into trains. Please email if you’d like to get together.

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