By Tom Williams
In Front Street Liquors, hauling two fifths of Benchmark and a thirty of Bud, I see my third grade teacher working the counter. Mrs. Blunt was the only black teacher I had until graduate school. Will she remember me or have the past twenty two years removed all traces of the soft cheeked eight-year-old I once was? Her face is smooth and honey colored. I can’t see a line, though perhaps she has pierced her nose. There’s gray in her hair, but she looks otherwise unchanged, as if a giant hand has ripped off the leaky ceiling of Front Street Liquors, grabbed us and set us down in her classroom, me with the other W’s in the last row because the alphabet tells us so.
I’m behind another inveterate shopper of Front Street, a shambling fellow with capless canvas sneakers and a bottle of chilled wine. It’s been a good day on the sidewalk: He slaps two fives on the counter and pockets the change Mrs. Blunt expertly makes. Turning, he recognizes me, reaches for the Reds cap that’s usually atop his head but not today, which forces us both to smile, as uneasy as Baptists caught in, well, a liquor store. I set my burden and my checkbook down on the counter, worn smooth since I’ve been coming. My balance is pretty secure this month, still I come to Front Street because they’re the only liquor store in town who takes checks. It occurred to me I ought to write out four checks to Front Street at the beginning of every month, but the time saved in that enterprise won’t be enough to expedite any of my other affairs. Still, I’ve made this purchase enough to know nearly to the penny what I need to write, as Mrs. Blunt, her voice straight out of 1979, supplies me the total. I hand the check over, square my shoulders and shrink so she gets a good look at me. I say, “Mrs. Blunt.” There’s more but she’s faster than I, and says. “It’s Malone now.”
Memories I had not encountered in years fill me as swiftly as I intend to drain one of the cans of Bud in my front seat in the parking lot. We were too young to know but our parents had certainly gossiped about her and Mr. Blunt, a JV football coach and history teacher at the high school, coal black and brooding. He scared me. I’d even seen some days where Mrs. Blunt’s foundation didn’t quite match her skin tone, especially around her eyes. A few bruises weren’t concealed by her long sleeves. That she’s no longer with him is good news, yes? She found a new husband, this Malone fellow. Another brother? A white man like my father? For someone I knew only nine months of my life—and from whom I only ever earned a B—I want for her some happiness, but working this middle of the day shift at a shabbier establishment is not a good sign. When did she come on board? Is she part or full time? Is Malone her maiden name? Who learns such things about teachers? “Ms. Malone, then,” I say. She bags my bourbon in a sack slightly darker than the skin of my hands. I pause, give her a chance to recall me—I might not have been the only biracial child she taught. But, seriously. It was 1979. Suburban Central Ohio. Her brown eyes search my face and I actually smile, the second time ever in her presence, I believe.
“I see a lot of former students,” she says. “I taught for over 22 years.”
I’m ready for her kindness, a recollection of the promise I had, back when a B was indicative of solid work, not assigned to avoid griping parents who ascribe genius to their shiftless spawn. But Ms. Malone says, “I can’t place you.” She angles her head as if trying to get water out of her ear. A small diamond sparkles; she has pierced her nose. She says, “You went to Attucks?”
“I was thinking you were older, I’m sorry.”
So much for my past promise. The present creases and sunspots of my undistinguished mulatto face must be as prominent as I fear. I remember her talking about teaching at a school prior to mine. To learn now it was Attucks, a predominantly black school established before Brown V Board of Education, both complicates and completes my understanding of Ms. Malone. Why did she leave that setting? Money, most likely. So why wasn’t I, the only child in her class with a black parent, her favorite? Why do I care now as we both stare at the bagged booze and case of beer on the counter? I say, “Some friends coming over.” I hook my fingers under the carry bar of the thirty pack. “A little get together.” That is an April Tuesday and no one but delivery men have been to my second apartment in the last six months does not matter. I need to save face.
Ms. Malone thins her lips, She opens the register with one hand, prepares to slip my check in the appointed box within. She says, “As I said, I had a lot of students. And my memory’s not what it used to be.”
I’d thought she was pretty back in 1979, only I didn’t tell any of my white classmates then. Her hair was straight, which confused them. A lot of loose talk about her lips’ size filled the boy’s room, kids pushing theirs out to mock and deride. I should have said something then. But I had plenty of other occasions to respond to their bigotries –some more personal than others–and didn’t. I was, in that area, consistent. What I notice now is Ms. Malone’s eyes steady on my bagged bottles of bourbon. She hasn’t bought my party excuse. That I have a problem is not unknown to me. I have admitted such in front of therapists, exes, even lasted six months of AA before someone said he knew he’d hit bottom when he we woke up on a Delta flight headed to Portland and had no idea how he’d gotten there or what he was supposed to do once he landed in that fabled City of Roses. Ten minutes later, I was enjoying an impossibly cold draft in a window seat at Paynes’ Tavern near the church where the meeting was held. When my sponsor walked past I even held up the glass in salute. In Front Street Liquors, I say, “You should come over,” fearful of her acceptance. At least three pairs of dirty underwear lay bunched near my front door. “What time do you get off?”
She holds up her slim left hand. A white gold band adorns her ring finger. As if recalling I often needed things spelled out twice, she says, “I don’t think Mr. Malone would appreciate that.”
Who is this husband of hers? How does he feel about her working in a liquor store? Is he an improvement over Mr. Blunt? Seriously, that dude and his Alan Page scowl chills me. Is Malone happy to have her working odd shifts, bringing something to help with their monthly bills? I’ll teach four summer classes at the comm college this summer with the promise of a full slate in fall but the Department chair’s been pretty cagey about spring and all you hear about around campus is budget cuts. I say, “He can come too. Let me give you my address.” Now I’m needing food as well as my dirty drawers in a hamper. And a hamper. And while my balance was solid it’s not endless. Pizza cut party style from Cardo’s runs two for twenty dollars on Tuesday nights. Will that be enough? I’m hoping Mr. Malone isn’t a big dude like Mr. Blunt was but even if he is, I might have an unopened bag of Lay’s. The idea of the party, born out of desperation, is starting to sound not so bad after all. I wouldn’t mind company. I wouldn’t mind meeting new people. I wouldn’t mind having someone there to listen to me when I say something about how the trouble isn’t how good the first beer tastes but how much better the first sip of the second beer tastes. Somewhere in this reverie, I see Ms. Malone’s lips moving and she says, “That wouldn’t be a good idea.”
I could protest but instead grab my bourbon. The bell above the entrance signals another customer has arrived. On both sides, I ’m weighted down by alcohol, but I’m buoyed by the idea of being unremarkable. With Ms. Blunt/Malone, my mother, my graduate school adviser, Dr. Shay-Marshall, I’d always believed I was letting them down. It’s good to know I’d made no impression on Ms. Malone, even when she was Mrs. Blunt. A pasty brunette wearing a tube top and cutoffs stops walking as I near. She lingers in my path when Ms. Malone says, “Mr. Tyler?” I stop. It took a moment, but I[m smiling again: Finally, she remembered! I turn. She holds up the check. “This is illegible,” she says. “Could you please write this over so someone can actually read it?” Did she just remember me or read the name printed on the check? Either way, I set the booze down on the gritty floor. The customer in the tube top and cutoffs eyes my purchases, then me, but I walk to the counter, perform all the duties asked of me and turn over a new check. “Thank you,” Mrs. Malone says and turns away.
In the car, I don’t drink that Budweiser as soon as I usually do. Unopened, it rests in my hand as I recall the first time I smiled when I saw Mrs. Blunt. That first day of class. Her face. The first of its kind I’d ever seen in that setting. How it seemed indicative of other changes to come. Someone is tapping on the driver window of my car as I search my mind for any chance that I indeed have changed for the good since I sat in Mrs. Blunt’s last row. When instead all my poor choices scroll by like a gag reel, I lift the can to my lips.
Tom Williams has published three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don’t Start me Talkin’, and Among the Wild Mulattos. He lives in Arkansas with his wife and two wild mixed kids.