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Mrs. Mundy turned from the blackboard just as Randy reached the top of the row. Eyes ahead, he calmly crossed in front of her, pushed open the door, and let it hiss closed behind him. “You have fifteen minutes,” Mrs. Mundy said to her class. “Begin.” And she glanced at the door before taking the slow, short walk to her desk. Randy was a student to whom she gave little thought. He was quiet, bright enough, got average marks. When she had reason to speak to him, some light still came from his eyes. The kind of bland, gloomy kid who would never find his way without a push, a lot of pushes, and so would be ignored all the way to an abrupt adulthood, where he’d make his own kind of unhappy life.
And then, sitting there, Mrs. Mundy wondered if it might be time to have a talk with Randy. Here, without permission, he’d walked out—and clearly not because he was ill. He had never been one to make a show of insubordination, he wasn’t trouble. Yet today he had broken a rule, and quite flagrantly, something that could mean much more in his little life than anyone but Mrs. Mundy would ever suppose. And he had done it here, in her classroom. He had done it to her.
A warm wind blew cut grass across Randy’s sneakers and lifted the hair from his eyes. Hands in pockets, he leaned into it walking up the road from school. He’d left his books behind. He thought he could say he upchucked. He did feel a little funny. But he didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to say anything. He just wanted to go. Just keep walking up this road till he was gone. To be left to his own devices—those were the words now going through his head, mysteriously suggesting those things to which everybody least wanted to leave him.
Then he knew he was just heading for Jim’s. He’d go help Jim with the shelves. That was something he could do in the meantime, before he did anything else. He might even talk to Jim about it, ask him what he thought. Although he was the only adult Randy ever called by first name, Jim was not like a friend, which might make him exactly the person he should talk to, if only to ask if he should say he upchucked or just say, I left class, Mrs. Mundy, because I wanted to. Jim was a man. He did what he wanted and nobody bothered him about it. Randy liked to be there in Jim’s shop, even when nothing was going on. It felt like a place where the things that mattered might be up to him. A place he could be all day.
Jim ran down the slope of grass, water from the bucket in his hand sloshing over, wetting his pants and shoes. From the garage doorway he saw Maggie’s head on the floor, her face showing undisguised agony. “You’re crying,” he said without thinking.
“It’s like it’s eating away my skin.”
“They say to flood,” he said. “Flood the burn with water for at least seven minutes, I think it is,” and he leaned over and tipped the bucket, very slowly pouring the water over her foot as if he could make it last seven minutes. The water splashed against her red foot and spattered her shirt and face and hair and ran down her leg into her shorts and ran out darkening the floor around them until at last the bucket was empty. “How does that feel?” Jim asked.
Maggie’s eyes were closed, water droplets in her lashes. She was breathing through her mouth. “Help me, Jesus,” she whispered.
All at once Jim dropped the bucket, grabbed hold of Maggie’s calf above her burned foot and sat down on the wet floor, resting her leg across his lap, keeping it elevated.
“Thank you,” she said.
The water on the floor seeped into Jim’s pants and underwear and made him remember an awful day in sixth grade, too old to wet his pants. Sixth grade, way too old to wet his pants. But now there was the weight of Maggie’s leg in his lap, pressing him into the wet. And Jim thought about what he was doing, holding Maggie’s leg, and that this was what she needed him to do, and he wondered how long he could do it.
Mrs. Mundy sat by an open window in the empty teachers’ lounge smoking a cigarette she’d found. She wasn’t a smoker. It was a filtered cigarette and didn’t taste like she remembered. She fingered a dog-eared file folder in her lap. A breeze came in and made her shiver though it wasn’t cold, and she crossed her legs beneath her skirt. She blew smoke at the open window and it jumped and scattered inches from her face. She looked over her shoulder at the door. Then, holding the folder against her breast, she put the cigarette on the edge of the sill, slouched into the chair and re-crossed her legs at a right angle—like a man, she thought—with a foot on the sill. Wouldn’t that be fine, she thought. To be that careless. She picked up the cigarette, took a puff and exhaled, and the smoke and everything she was feeling blew back through her.
“Are you sure that was turpentine?” Maggie said again, not crying now.
“No,” Jim said.
“Could it be some kind of acid or something?
“I don’t know,” Jim said. “My father bought all this stuff.”
“Your father—died when?”
“Four years ago.”
“Sure,” Jim said. “I mean—this stuff, it’s all his. He used to talk about it, I guess, but I didn’t know anything. I don’t know what things are.” He looked down, deeply ashamed, because of what he’d just said or because of his wet pants or because of everything else, it didn’t make any difference. His hands moved under Maggie’s leg to adjust her weight on him.
“That feels good,” she said.
“What? Oh,” he said, not sure what he’d done. “How’s your foot?”
“Better. Calming down,” she said. “The flooding helped.”
“Oh—but, I mean, it wasn’t seven minutes…” He looked away. After scratching his face his hand came to rest on her bare ankle. They were both soaking wet now, water was everywhere.
Maggie watched him. She asked, “What kinds of things did your father do in here?”
Jim looked at Maggie’s foot. It was still red, but not blistering or anything. He stopped himself from touching the red part. “I don’t know,” he said.
Maggie felt Jim’s hand move from her ankle to her calf. “Well, what kinds of things do you do in here?” she said.
Jim swallowed. “I don’t know,” he said.
From the road by Jim’s house, Randy came through the trees and heard water. A hose in the yard was running hard, jerking around the grass like a snake, spewing water down the slope. It must have been on a long time, so much water, all down the driveway into Jim’s shop. Randy started to run down toward the faucet but skidded, the turf sodden and slippery, then stopped, looked. Something was happening in Jim’s shop, in the shadows beyond the open door—people, on the floor, doing something. They didn’t seem to care about the water coming in. They were busy. They didn’t see Randy. Did Jim get a new helper? He cut across the slope, away from the door so they wouldn’t see him, and headed for the window on the other side. Who was helping Jim?
Mrs. Mundy got out of her car and the wind blew her skirt up around her knees. She smoothed it down with the file folder, Randy’s sparse record: report cards, attendance, a permission slip from the boy’s mother to work for this fellow after school. She looked him up. She didn’t remember this Jim, though he’d apparently been one of her students, not so long ago in years, but in another life. The other life. And now, here she came in this life, on this warm spring afternoon. Another spring, another ending, to leave behind. She stood by the road and heard water. A hose left on, lazily dragging itself around by its own flow. The gravel drive flooded, water running down into the garage—such a waste. Mrs. Mundy shook her head, went and stamped on the neck of the hose and slowly bent to pick it up.
Down on his haunches, Randy inched along the wall, the ground beneath dead rose bushes puddled and muddy. When he reached the window he carefully raised his head till his eyes were barely above the sill. Oh, it was just Maggie. Jim and Maggie on the floor of the shop. But something wasn’t right. Their clothes were wet, sticking to them, they were lying in the water. Maggie was on her back, one leg sticking out, the other bent and spread, her bare foot in Jim’s hands, lifted up to Jim’s face. Then Randy watched Jim press the heel of Maggie’s foot against his cheek.
“I poured it in the roller pan last week,” Jim said. “I was going to see if it would strip paint. But there wasn’t any paint. Then I liked the smell. So I left it,” he said. “I don’t know what to do with anything.”
“Shhhhh,” said Maggie. “It doesn’t matter.”
“And the bucket,” Jim said. “How could I be so stupid? Why didn’t I just bring the hose down?” He was gently banging the ball of her foot against his brow. “Then you would’ve gotten the full seven minutes.”
“Jim, be still. It’s all better now.”
He slid her foot down over his nose.
“Careful,” said Maggie.
“Oh, it didn’t hurt.”
“Not me,” she said.
“Me either,” said Jim.
At the window Randy knelt watching openly now, for Jim and Maggie were blind to him, to the water pooling around them, to anything besides each other. Randy’s heart raced, a bad taste had come into his mouth, a taste from somewhere sick inside him, surging in around his teeth which were steadily working over his tongue, and he needed to spit, but instead he kept swallowing.
“Maggie,” Jim said and tenderly kissed the arch of her foot, then dragged his tongue up her toughened sole to the toes, slobbering a little. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and blushed. “Maggie?”
Inside his pants Randy’s thing, new to him in its explicit promise, thumped along with his heart. Never before like this had it been, not even with those pictures, those pawed-over nudist camp magazines that made him so crazy. No, this—these people, real people he thought he knew, who spoke to him, who knew his name, were no longer in the same world as him. He was witnessing something completely cut off from life, dark as night but in the middle of the afternoon, some secret corner of hell. Randy was watching Jim and Maggie, but he was seeing devils. And his breath was labored and the blood kept pounding in his thing as if to prove he too was damned.
At the sound of her name Maggie opened her eyes, waited. What had happened had been so sudden, she’d had no time to think about it. She had been in real pain and fear, and it was somehow only right that such pain and fear would be met with extraordinary acts, even from the likes of Jim, an ordinary man with whom she had long been hopelessly in love. But now—now there was nothing hopeless about it. And now she was struggling to remember the love. “What, Jim?” she said. “What?”
Mrs. Mundy, water still pouring from the hose she clutched, carefully side-stepped down the slope of grass toward the faucet. When she reached the yard behind the garage, she looked up and saw Randy, kneeling at the window. And here was something very wrong indeed, for she saw his bottom then, Randy’s bare bottom, white as a seashell on a day at the shore—such holidays long past, beachcombing with Mr. Mundy in the morning before it got too warm, the summer afternoons always too warm—pants to his knees, knees in the mud by the window, so filthy. Randy held himself in his hand and pulled, grunting and puffing, and didn’t look at her, at Mrs. Mundy, but gazed through the window and trembled and whimpered, kneeling there in the muck. Randy had walked out on Mrs. Mundy, and she had come to find him, and she would help him now, filthy and indecent as he was. She moved closer and looked down at the water running from her hand, her left hand with thin gold band and raw knuckles and spots, and she moved her hand up the hose, pushed her thumb over the flow, and squeezed it into a torrent, violent, directed. She had helped wash a dog, she remembered, once.