Haunt keeps seeing his wife’s face in his mind as he walks down the third floor stairs but he doesn’t know what to make of it, as her face is partly covered in shadow.
“Mrs. Davis, to my office immediately,” Principal Jaffe says over the loudspeaker, and Haunt feels something sharp and quick cut down his spine like a knife at the sound of Jaffe’s voice just above him. After seeing Mrs. Davis, the union rep, in the principal’s office last week following the rape incident, she told him that she wouldn’t be able to “fix his mess” the next time and that he had to “stop messing up,” if he didn’t want to “end up in the unemployment line.”
The image of the principal and the union rep sitting in the office together like two judges waiting for him makes him feel light-headed all of a sudden. He grabs onto the banister next to him and staggers down the stairs.
When Haunt reaches the second floor, he stops to take a breather. He puts two fingers to his neck to take his pulse and can feel the racehorses trying to gallop right out of his skin. Bending over, he takes short and heavy breaths to avoid a panic attack, and when he stands back up, the quick change in elevation makes everything go black behind his eyes. As he stands in the dissipating darkness, an image infiltrates his head and it dissolves everything else around him. In moments, he’s no longer on the second flight of stairs looking at a brick wall but rather, in his own head.
In his mind, he sees himself being released from a prison cell in medieval times. A faceless prison guard grabs his arm and throws him out of his cell. The guard forces him to march down a putrid hallway and he can feel rat tails rubbing up against his pant legs. While not much bigger than him, the guard pushes and pokes him from behind with a spear until he’s outside, looking up at the contrasting blue sky from the darkness of the tunnel below. He shuffles past a crowd of filthy onlookers and they gnash their teeth at him and begin to throw rotten fruits and vegetables his way, cursing him.
“Cut his head off,” an old woman wearing a stained apron shouts. She takes a bite out of a small whole cabbage and throws it at him. It hits him in the shoulder, throwing him off balance.
“No, we should crucify him!” a large man says beside her, his head shaped like a box,
“We don’t crucify anybody anymore.”
Haunt looks up from the road and can see the chopping block waiting for him on an elevated stage. The block, on closer inspection, is really just a tree stump, and it looks as if the stage was built right on top of it, stunting its growth. As he stares at the giant stump that’s sitting there just for him, he thinks of what crime he could have possibly committed, but all he can come up with is stealing a loaf of bread for his wife, as he would never do anything to harm another person, even in a fantasy.
The prison guard behind him starts to take shape in his head, and as he peeks over his shoulder, he can see Mrs. Davis’ large posterior behind him. Her sharp nails and small facial features look just as nasty as they do in real life.
“We’re tired of cleaning up your mess,” she whispers in his ear.
The closer Haunt gets to the stage, the more his executioner begins to take shape as well. As he walks up the steps, he can see the executioner now, and it’s Principal Jaffe. He’s not even wearing a mask. His buzzcut haircut is as sharp as the axe he proudly holds at his side, and his double chin sags beneath a grin as Haunt is pushed up onto the stage.
“I’m sorry to do this to you because you’re one hell of a guy,” Jaffe says when he’s close enough for Haunt to hear him, “But if it’s going to be you or me who’s going to get the axe, I’m going to choose you.”
“But I can change,” Haunt pleads, “I can do better,” but Mrs. Davis isn’t having that. She kicks Haunt in the back of the knee with her pointy heel, and it makes him fall to the ground.
“Get your head on that chopping block,” Mrs. Davis snarls, bending down close to his ear, and Jaffe kicks him in the butt, making him crawl on all fours. Strangely enough, when Haunt rests his chin on the stump, there isn’t a tear in his eye. Something about the sacrifice of it all, about stealing a loaf of bread for his starving wife, makes him feel as if he actually did something worthwhile with his life. He would do it all again if he could.
With his tired eyes, he scans the audience for his wife, but he can’t find her anywhere at first. There are just too many faces in the crowd, and so many of them are shouting for his head, throwing their fists up in the air in unison. But as his eyes adjust to the glob of people, he sees her there, front and center, covered in a blue light and crying. For her, he will cry, and tears begin to well up in his eyes. With his quivering chin, his face wobbles on the block, and he wants to let out a scream but his throat is too clogged with emotions to let him.
How will she ever go on without me? Haunt wonders, the shadow of the raised axe lingering in his eyes. But an even greater, more haunting concern enters his mind at the very last second—How would I ever go on without her? And he can see the shadow of the axe come down towards his neck. He shuts his eyes and—
“Mr. Haunt, you are wanted in my office immediately,” Principal Jaffe’s voice blares above Haunt again, making him jump back into reality, “Will somebody in security please see if Mr. Haunt is in the hallway somewhere? He is wanted in my office now.”
Haunt runs down the rest of the stairs two at a time and gets to the lobby. He turns right and runs a bit more to get to the main office, and takes another right to go inside. He doesn’t want to deal with anymore security guards today, especially not Mr. Dawson, who creeps him out by just looking at him
When he enters the room, two kids are sitting by the entrance with their heads down, sent out of class for bad behavior.
“Where were you?” Michelle, Jaffe’s buxom secretary, asks and Haunt rushes past her, not wanting to talk to her right now. Haunt walks into the principal’s open door, and when he steps inside the blue and yellow decorated room, he sees Mrs. Davis and Principal Jaffe sitting across from each other, a desk separating them. They both look up at Haunt with scrunched up and angry faces.
“Where the hell were you?” Jaffe snarls, “I called you down here over five minutes ago.
“I had to go to the bathroom,” Haunt lies, and Jaffe shoots a glance over at Mrs. Davis, who shakes her head. On her lap is a yellow legal pad, and Haunt knows exactly what it’s for.
“Well, close the door then,” Jaffe orders, and Haunt does so, lightly. There are three seats that sit in front of Jaffe’s desk. One of them contains Mrs. Davis, who sits on the farthest end. There are two next to her, and Haunt takes the seat farthest to the right, leaving a seat between them. In the back of his mind, he sees his wife looking up at him, the shadow of the ax meant to kill him spread across her face.
“You have two options,” Jaffe begins, leaning back in his chair in front of a large U.C.L.A. banner that sits on his wall, “You can resign or we can fire you?”
Out the corner of his eye, Haunt sees Mrs. Davis writing something in her legal pad, and her long, pink nails, which match her tight outfit, curl around her pen like a Venus flytrap ensnaring its prey.
“We should go over Mr. Haunt’s options in more detail,” Mrs. Davis says, looking up from her legal pad for only a second, “Just so he knows that we’re offering him a fair deal.”
“You want the short end of it, Jeff,” Jaffe says, looking at Haunt and spinning left and right in his chair, “You’d be better off if you resigned, it’s as simple as that.”
“Unfortunately, though, because of certain legal issues following last week’s incident, we can’t write you a letter of recommendation,” Mrs. Davis chimes in.
“I’m sure you understand,” Jaffe adds.
As much as Haunt would like to just walk out the room and accept their offer—anything to just get away from their feigned concern—the machinery in his head starts spinning and he thinks about how he won’t be able to collect unemployment if they get him to resign. So he has to play ball with them, even if it makes him sick to his stomach. It’s the only way he can go home to his wife tonight and not feel completely ashamed. His poor wife. What is she going to do about the voices?
“I appreciate your concern, but I would rather be fired,” Haunt says. A flash passes over Jaffe’s fat face and he looks over at Mrs. Davis, who Haunt can see nod in Jaffe’s direction.
“Well, I’d hate to do this to you, Mr. Haunt,” Jaffe says, sitting upright in his seat now, “being that you’re one hell of a guy and all, but if I fire you, I’m really going to have to bring down the fire on you. Do you understand what I mean?”
Haunt remains blank. Jaffe looks over at Mrs. Davis and she nods again, so he continues.
“After the black eye you gave us last week, the district, well, let’s just say, they won’t be too pleased if we get rid of you this week when we should have done it last week. I hope you understand where I’m coming from with this.”
Haunt peeks over again at Mrs. Davis only to see that she’s looking right at him now.
“I don’t know if you understand what kind of stain last week’s incident would put on your resume, Mr. Haunt,” Mrs. Davis says in a judicious tone, and Haunt nods his head.
“Yes, I understand,” Haunt says, “And I think you should fire me for it.”
“No, I don’t think you do,” Jaffe says, “Like Stacy over here says, you don’t want that kind of stain on your record. Other schools won’t hire you worth a damn. Not even another urban one like this one.”
“I’m aware of that,” Haunt says, “But I still think you should fire me.”
“Stacy,” Jaffe says, leaning back in his seat and staring hard at Haunt, “Read him some of his records please.”
“In September of this year,” Mrs. Davis says, leafing through the yellow legal pad that she brought with her last week, “A fight broke out in your classroom where a student had to go to the hospital for a broken nose.”
“Classroom management is important in every school,” Jaffe says.
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Haunt says, standing by his convictions, “I know I wouldn’t be able to get another teaching job if I got fired here today.”
“Well, if you know that then, then I’m just curious, Jeff,” Jaffe says, his small lips smugly to the side of his face, “Where do you expect to get a job then in this economy? You expect to go back to working for the government, auditing companies or whatever you did, just like that?”
“No, I’ll probably do something else,” Haunt says, not really knowing what that something else might be, but still not letting them gain an inch in this conversation, “Maybe carpentry. I like working with my hands.”
Jaffe looks over at Mrs. Davis and he raises his eyebrows and purses his lips. She shakes her head and motions with her lips back to his desk, and Jaffe offers an angry expression. Haunt watches all this with a sort of morbid fascination at their mental strategizing, all to get him to quit on his own volition today.
“Look,” Haunt says, looking at Jaffe now whose eyebrows are all the way up to his buzzcut, “I don’t want to resign. If you want to fire me, then go ahead. But I’d be just as fine if you’d let me go back to teaching in my classroom.
Something like a fuse goes off in Jaffe’s face and he slams the desk with his fist.
“With a fucking broken computer in your room?” Jaffe explodes, and Mrs. Davis puts her hand out, telling him to cool down, but Haunt has already latched on to his boss’ anger and has him right where he wants him.
“There’s no reason to curse at me,” Haunt says, leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs. “I’m just trying to be civil here.”
“Civil?” Jaffe says, his face turning red, and Mrs. Davis keeps patting the air with her hands, but Jaffe is already into it, leaning into his desk, “After that shit last week with the district, you think we can just have a computer break in your classroom and you go back in there like business is usual, is that what you think? The superintendent will have my ass on a spit for letting someone as incompetent as you in that room. The only reason I kept you on last week is because you have a goddamn pregnant wife at home. Are you penalizing me now for giving you a fucking break? Is that what you’re doing to me?”
Haunt can see Mrs. Davis put her hand over her eyes, and he does feel a little bad for his boss, now knowing why he was kept on, but he can’t let sympathy hold him back now. He has to do this, for Marigold.
“Well, you can either put me back in the classroom, or, I can go tell the district how you’re trying to blackmail me into quitting, and I have the union rep right here in this room as a witness,” Haunt says, and Jaffe slams his table again and spins around right and left, fuming.
When he finally stops turning, he leans into his desk again and points his finger, right in Haunt’s face.
“You’re a goddamn snake, you know that, Jeff? You’re a—” he begins, but Mrs. Davis leans forward, wrapping her long fingernails around his finger and trapping it there.
“That’s enough,” Mrs. Davis says, looking Jaffe right in the face and communicating with him again in their silent talk. Haunt may not know what he’s going to do in his newly dismal future, but he does know that he’s going to be walking out of here today with a severance package, or whatever the hell they give teachers when they fire them.
Jaffe scowls but then leans back in his seat. His eyes never leave Haunt’s, and Haunt’s never leave his. The image of the executioner diminishes in his eyes now, and all he sees is a petty, fat man, one who can’t control his temper.
“You will get your wish and be fired today, Mr. Haunt,” Mrs. Davis says, her topaz eyes lingering in his mind long after she turns her attention back to the principal, “Effective immediately, Mr. Haunt will be fired and a substitute teacher will be hired in his stead to take over for him until somebody else can replace him.”
“But what about Mrs. Clevin?”Jaffe whines, throwing out his hands, and Haunt finds his old boss’ desperation pathetic. Why did he fear him again?
“We will deal with her on our own time,” Mrs. Davis says, “In the mean time, we have to prepare for Mr. Haunt’s departure.”
Principal Jaffe looks over at Mrs. Davis and then back at Haunt. He gnarls his fists and squeezes the ends of his chair handles as if he wants to rip them right off.
“You may leave now, Mr. Haunt,” Mrs. Davis says, and Haunt stands up from his seat, lowering his head almost in a sort of a bow to the both of them.
“Thank you,” Haunt says, “I’ll clean out my room by the end of the day.”
Haunt walks to the door when Mrs. Davis stops him.
“Oh, Mr. Haunt,” Mrs. Davis says.
“Yes, Mrs. Davis?” Haunt says, halfway out the door.
“Whatever it is that you’re willing to risk your career on,” Mrs. Davis says, looking him right in the eyes from her seat, “I hope it’s worth it, because like Mr. Jaffe says, we’re not going to be kind to you when we write up why we fired you.”
“It is worth it,” Haunt says proudly, and he steps out the door, closing it lightly again.
Haunt walks out the main office and all the way down the hall until he reaches the exit to the parking lot. He steps outside, and the November wind is cold on his skin. It makes him shiver all over. For a second, he bungles in his pockets for his car keys, but then he realizes that he didn’t drive today because it’s Wednesday, and his friend Steve always drives on Wednesday. Something like tears begin to well up in his eyes and he hurries over to his friend’s Civic. He sits right on the curb next to it and lowers himself so nobody can see him. He rests his arms on his knees and digs his face into his arms and he begins to cry. He cries long and hard, but they are tears of joy because he knows that what he just did he did for his wife, and he would do it all over again if he could. The thought of her gives him strength, as it always has. He thinks of her now, but instead of being front and center in the crowd as she was before in his mind, she steps backwards, deeper into the shadow that she was partly in before until she can’t be seen at all anymore, a random shape in a sea of yawning nothingness.