I am a Mean Teacher.

Chapter 24 / 2009

 I am a Mean Teacher.

I arrive at work a half hour early to find Mother and Dad dressed like the overgrown Easter bunnies who frantically wave signs in front of car washes on the low end of Santa Monica Boulevard, the rhythmic swaying of their dirty paws trying to drum up business. 

I thought Louis Prima was pushing the color co-ordination envelope.

The bunnies are encased in orange satin shorts, purple lycra tee shirts stretched over their distended bellies, bone white sox with blue rings running around their tops, bright red Nikes and green fanny packs bouncing on lumpy butts.  

Natch, Mom and Dad are going to the gym.

Neither ask why I am wearing the tuxedo shirt or the Zebra skin shoes.  I speculate that the reason Mother and Dad have not asked me why I have shown up early is because their clocks are still set back an hour, Pacific Standard Time being Obama’s latest attempt at mind control.

Mother and Dad are back from the gym in forty-five minutes, each carrying a Burger King bag.  I must admit, I am not familiar with this particular workout regimen.

In the living room, a soft spoken Charlie Rose talks with my man Paul Krugman about the economy.  Mother and Dad listen between bites of their juicy burgers, smirks curling their lips as their eyes open wide with the heresy of it all.  Mother and Dad place their grease stained bags on a magazine cover featuring Kate Hudson and offer me a small bag of French fries.  

“Aren’t French fires verboten here?” I ask.

Mother and Dad stare into the green lushness of le jardin.

“It’s a joke,” I say.  

Their chillness is chilling.  

I smile.  Nod my head. 

“It’s cool,” I say.  “I’m glad you’re back.  It gets lonely here…I’ll change the channel.”

“Who are these guys?” Mother asks.

“Don’t you recognize them?  They’ve been on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’”

Mother stares at Charlie as if she knew him, Dad launches into his Jimmy Stewart aw-shucks mumbling bit about how Obama is a socialist.

The stench of the grease eating away Kate’s face makes my gut churn.

“Why is Obama a socialist?” I ask.

Lager cans are popped open, Burger King bags are turned upside down and emptied out, their contents obliterating what remains of Kate’s tabloid face.  Mother can recite, in elaborate and intricate detail, the comings and goings of every reality show ever broadcast, with Dad picking up anything his beloved has missed before endlessly pontificating on the least consequential of backstories or dissecting a complicated coupling or breakup.  

“It’s like…you know…he who must be obeyed doesn’t look out for the working guy, wasting money on all these government programs,” Mother says.

“Pretty soon it’ll be time to get our guns out,” Dad says.  “We’ll…we’ll have to shoot up the Ralphs for groceries.”

I could tell Mother and Dad that Schwarzenegger wants to cut home health funding for disabled children like their son, but then they would be up all night babbling about the internet site proclaiming the end of world in 2012 or explaining some Lucy and Ethel technique they have come up with to flush out the lost boy’s G tube. 

It is their house, it is their fast food, it is my tax money padding their cage.  Until LAUSD hooks me up with some steady substitute shifts, I’ll swing from a shower rod and whistle “Maytime” to keep this gig.  

Turning the volume up on my guys, I decline Mother’s repeated offers of French fries, telling her my stomach is très upset.

I have become the mean LAUSD schoolteacher.


Five hours later, Dad staggers into the kitchen, his arm pits sweating lager, his satin gym shorts giving off the scent of urine when he gets too close.  Dad is more animated than Joe and Mika, I will give him that.  In the pitch-black living room, the lost boy sleeps with a smile on his face, I sit in the small kitchen and listen to Dad, adjusting my psychic bulletproof vest to deflect his well aimed bullets.  Dad starts off with the usual rants about Obama, he is a Muslim, he is not a citizen, Michelle is a racist.

  The black helicopters are sure to be circling above us before dawn breaks over the garbage filled street.

“Look at what he did with the banks,” Dad says.  “Look at what he’s letting them get away with.”

“The guy’s only been in office a few months.  Bush is the one who started all this.”

“Those bank guys should be hunted down..round ’em up…shoot ’em between the eyes.”

“Shooting bankers isn’t going to change the economy.”

“What?  What, guy?  You’re not man enough to pull the trigger?”

“Like you’re going to go out to shoot a banker.   You can barely open the refrigerator door.”

“Time to man up…pull the trigger.”

At least when my dad got drunk he only talked about fixing up his boat or what college he wanted me to go to.  My mother was real nasty when she got in her cups, but she was not about to go Ma Kettle on anyone.

Dad takes a lager out of the freezer.

“Want to know the best thing that Bush did?” Dad asks.  “Want to know?  Want to know?”

“There’re so many to choose from.”

“Iraq…he brought democracy to Iraq…and those fools don’t want it.”

“They’re pretty much a tribal culture, maybe they don’t want what we have.”


“Iraq wouldn’t have gone down if we had a draft.  Yoga moms at Trader Joe’s would never let their kids die for this bull.”

Dad’s lager can hits the dirty floor, I cover the collateral damage with a paper towel.

“You’d change your tune if you were number sixteen in the draft lottery, like I was,”  I tell him.  

Not wanting Dad to fall and break a hip, I wipe the lager up.  Then again, if he did go down, he could finagle his injury into SSI.

“Kind of changes your take on things when the government wants to ship you out to die when you’re nineteen years old,” I say to Dad as his shaking fingers hunt for a fresh lager.

“You didn’t go?” Dad asks.  “You didn’t serve?”

“Do you even know what Vietnam was about?”

Dad pops open another lager, his eyes look at the Burger King bags.

“If you feel that way about it, why don’t you join up?” I ask him.  “They’d love to have you.”

“I’ve got a sick kid….”

“You think there aren’t other guys in the service with sick kids ?”

“You know my situation…you know how it is here.”

“I know how it is here.”

Taking a long swig, Dad throws his head back, arching his neck the way his son does when the swirling colors of the television screen mesmerize his unblinking eyes.  

“Why is it that all you gung-ho guys never want to do the fighting?” I ask.  “How do you sleep at night, leaving it to these young kids to give it up for you?”

“You’re so screwed up…so…”

“Man up, guy.  Go to Iraq, there’s plenty of rifles to pick up there.”

Dad downs more brewski, his eyes stare at a crack in the ceiling, the bite of the ammonia smell sweating out of his skin masking the strong whiffs of urine.

“Join up with Blackwater,” I tell him.  “Think of all the scratch you’ll make driving trucks around Iraq.  Your wife and kid would have plenty of money then.”

“You jagoff…you frigging jagoff.”

Dad slinks to the bathroom at the end of the hallway, its width so narrow Mother can barely squeeze sideways between its faded brown paneled walls, the filthy passage lined on one side with, at minimum, one hundred plastic boxes, packed full with CDs, DVDs, clothes, toys, purses and bills.  Whenever I pass these benign boxes, I ask myself why are they the only ones in the house sealed up tight with fitted tops? 

In the inky blackness of the living room, the lost boy’s G tube erupts with gas.

Sounding like the slashing blades of a black helicopter, Dad pukes into the toilet.

Please, let him avoid the floor.  

For reasons I do not understand, the bathroom floor is the only clean place in this house.  The missing pane in the bathroom window lets in a cold breeze, which will most likely hit Dad with  a strong one-two punch and wake him up before he chokes on his vomit.  As the bathroom sink’s only functioning faucet spews cold water, my gut holds no anxiety about Dad scalding his bloated face with hot water.  Good luck to him if he tries to raise himself up off of the shining white floor tiles by holding on to the wicker cabinet on the side of the toilet.  Jammed with bars of soap, bottles of shampoo and conditioner, rolls of toilet paper, boxes of Kotex and giant-sized dispensers of scented hand lotions, a black mildew has eaten into the cabinet’s sides and shelves, its rotted out teeth splintering them apart.

If he has not passed out, Dad can always knock a hole in the bathroom wall to compliment the one in the bedroom, his wobbly body landing a punch in the blank space above the irregularly aligned towel racks, his lager cold fists imagining the emptiness to be me, the jagoff.

Thinking myself a lucky man to have twelve stepped my way out of the life at the end of this cramped hallway in North Hollywood, I stop drinking water for the remainder of my shift.

Wouldn’t want to have to pee with Dad passed out on the bathroom floor.  


The next night, the dissembling staffing co-ordinator calls an hour before shift time, his space cadet rambling revealing, after five tedious minutes, that the lost boy is sick, Mother and Dad have taken him to the hospital.  

Dad was snoring on the bathroom floor when I left, a beatific smile on his face.  My patient was fine, sleeping quietly, tethered to his ventilator, his G tube feed running without a hitch. 

Should I drive past the house to see if the family is home?   

Did I piss Dad off?  

I talked back to my parents when they were drunk, but by the time I was a Bar Mitzvah man, I had learned it was best not to.  Forty years later, I am in the City of the Angels with yet another self-righteous drunk passed out on the floor.

There is no call from the agency the next night, the cadet has not answered the messages I left during the day.  I drive in to work, practicing my apologies to Dad.  He has a sick child and a disconnected wife.  I would probably drink too if my kid saw and heard things no one else did, if he smiled and giggled while staring at his hand for two solid hours without blinking.  

No, I would tell my boy to write out the sounds and pictures in his head, sing his smiles out, tell me what he sees in his hand. 

I will tell Dad we are chill, I should not have talked politics or George Bush with him.  

I can fix this, easy.  

Isn’t that why I became a nurse, to fix people?

I knock on the lost boy’s door.  No answer, the lights are off inside. 

Up and down the block, broken furniture is piled high on the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street, waiting, as it does every shift I work, to be thrown into in the street in the middle of the night.  

How could the lost boy have gotten sick so quickly?  Did I miss something?  Could I have prevented this?  I can spot changes immediately in an adult.  But in a child?  I am not a peds nurse, I should never have taken this case on.  I am tired, exhausted, my feet and hands heavy with concrete.  I have stayed up for months caring for the lost boy, only to have him become sick on my watch.  What was the point of all this, of stepping into the filth of these tiny rooms, listening to the obscenities of these overfed bunnies?

The lucky man needs money to pay rent and buy food with. 

I forgot.  Sometimes, when it’s late and everybody is talking, I forget.


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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

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