Tonight I want to share something a little different with you. Tonight I'm sharing the first couple chapters of a short story that I hope one day will be part of a bigger work. Every writer has this sort of project rattling around in their heads.
If you've read "Lies in Chance" You'll recognize some of the character names in these chapters. When you live with the same characters, like I did, for most of your life, you don't want to let them go just because you've written the words, "Then End."
I realized, after I'd finished "Lies in Chance" that I wasn't quite ready to let the good people of Rock Harbor go quite so easily. I also realized that there were four relationships I wanted to go back and explain in bigger detail. Just about everyone in "Lies" is at the end of a destroyed romantic relationship, and I thought it fair to my readers...and myself...to go back to the beginning and find out how these couples got together in the first place.
My natural starting point, I thought, was with the one couple who were in a happy marriage in the book, Drew and Joanna. I realized, in thinking about how they got together, that even the easiest, most uncomplicated romance starts with pitfalls and trials. I often look at Drew and Jo as a picture of my own marriage of nearly 22 years with my husband, Tom. In many ways we have become the solid couple everyone depends on to just always be. But, back in our early days, there were trials, and near breakups.
So as I was thinking about this project, this four story book, I realized, given my love of all things musical, that if this project ever did get finished, it wasn't going to be stories so much as love songs. Love songs to my characters, my friends and family, in Rock Harbor.
Here's the first bit of the first story. Please enjoy!
LOVE IS ELEMENTARY.
Drew Shepaski set his brief case on the battered industrial sized desk and sighed. Not one often given to deep self analysis, the thirty year old teacher wondered if he should have his head examined.
It was a perfectly good job. I left a perfectly good job. And now I’m the principal of…
He looked out the window on the left side of the expansive classroom that now was his. Then he looked out the window on the right.
I’m the principal of a cow pasture.
He tapped the pocket of his dress shirt, a habit from his days as a collegiate smoker. No, cigarettes are not the answer. Gotta have a question first.
How about this? What the HELL am I doing here?
“Careful, no swearing allowed here at St. Matt’s.”
Startled, Drew looked up from his reverie, eye to eye with possibly the most cheerful looking woman he had ever seen. “I’m sorry, did I say something?”
The young woman at the door laughed. “No, but you sure looked like you wanted to. And from that dark look on your face, I’m bettin’ it wasn’t the Lord’s Prayer you had on your mind.” She crossed the room, walking right up to him without hesitation.
Drew sighed. That’s right. I’m the principal of a parochial cow pasture now.
“Joanna Huber. Part time eight grade teacher…and girls’ soccer…church organist.” She stuck her hand out.
Drew took her hand in his, and was struck by how tiny her hand really was. His felt like a massive paw covering hers. He shook her hand as gently as he knew how, afraid he might break it. “Drew, Drew Shepaski. I’m the principal, I guess.” He blinked, well aware that he must look like a thundering oaf to a woman so petite, so lively and so…pretty.
“Well, if you aren’t, then you have some explaining to do to the school board!” She giggled, hiding her mouth behind her tiny hand, her dark blue eyes snapping with mischief. “ I’m supposed to show you around.”
“Oh, okay. I mean, sure.” If I stop saying words, maybe she will stop looking at me like I’m a moron.
“Come on. It’s a short tour, but I promise you’ll drink some really terrible coffee at the end.” Joanna laughed again and led the way out of the room.
“Well, only if it’s really terrible.” There, that seemed sort of funny.
“It will be, I promise. The worst. “ Joanna opened pointed to the rooms as they walked down the hallway. “First grade, that’s Marla. She teaches art. Don’t let her EVER make coffee if she’s done a project involving paste.”
Joanne made a sour face and gave an exaggerated shudder. “Trust me. Okay, the first room next to your. That’s Kindergarten. Mrs. King. She’s the pastor’s wife.”
“Ah.” Joanna wrinkled her nose. “So you know.” She kept a completely serious face for about a heartbeat and then burst out laughing. She pointed out several more classrooms, naming teachers and giving personal history about each teacher until they’d done a loop of the long hallway and were nearly back at his classroom.
“So the classrooms are all in order from youngest,” Drew pointed to Mrs. King’s room. “To oldest.” He point to his door, marked “8th grade, Mr. Shepaski.”
“Ah, new guy is paying attention!” She nodded.
“We’ve already been past sixth and seventh. So what, no fifth grade?”
“Another gold star. Nope, we don’t have a fifth grade teacher just yet. Well, I mean we had one last year, obviously. But she got herself pregnant, and married…in that order.” Joanna’s eyes sparkled again as she cocked her head to one side, as if waiting for a response from him.
Drew swallowed, unsure of what, exactly to say to this pert, pretty girl with the chestnut brown red hair that seemed to glow in the dim daylight of the hallway.
Seemingly unphased by his lack of response, Joanna continued. “See, doing things backwards like that, that’s frowned on by the good families of St. Matt’s. Morals clause, you know.”
Drew nodded. Weirdest thing I ever had to sign in a teaching contract. Felt like Sunday School with all the “You will not’s.”
“So anyway, she moved away because…of the shame…” Joanna whispered the last words, her eyes sparkling with suppressed mirth again. “And, here we are, mid July, hoping against hope that some teacher will magically drop out of the sky to fill the position. “ She shrugged. “But the sixth and seventh grade teachers, they’ve moved down the hall to the bigger rooms just in case they have to split the fifth grade class between them.”
“Wasn’t that a big pain?” Would have been for me.
Joanna shook her head. “Nah. Not with those two. Actually, I think they’re an item, you know? Moving them into the bigger classrooms, they actually share a big office between the two rooms. Personally, I’m thinking the school board should get themselves ready for either a fast marriage or another long teacher hunt.” She shrugged. “This job isn’t for everyone.”
Drew followed Joanna through the last door in the hall, the teachers’ lounge. This was a wide room that covered most of the very end of the building. The principals’ office, his office, took up the corner nearest the door, and was a sort of pass through room to his classroom. He glanced in the office, noting the partition windows in his office gave the room the field of a guard shack at a POW shack.
“Sorta like an air traffic controllers’ space, isn’t it?” Joanna picked up a coffee mug from the wide table beneath the window opposite of Drew’s office. “You can watch your classroom and the teachers all at the same time.”
The description fits my line of thinking far better than yours. “It’s an interesting floor plan.
“The office was added way after these two rooms were built. This room and yours were actually the original school like a hundred years ago. Here,” she handed a steaming cup of coffee. “The office was added when this room became the teachers’ lounge and we realized that a principal might just need an office, like everyone else.
Drew held the coffee cup up, pausing before drinking out of a mug that looked more like a yard sale reject.
“I know. Ugliest cups on earth. But what can you say? Everyone cleans out their kitchens and says, ‘Well, those nice teachers, they always need coffee cups.’ The result is we have enough ugly coffee cups to last through several long Greek weddings.”
She sat down on a lumpy brown couch that also resembled many yard sales gems Drew recalled from his childhood. “Come on. You must have some questions.”
Drew pulled a hard wooden chair up to a table loaded down with stacks of construction paper and jars of paste. He took a sip of coffee and nearly spat it out. “Wow…”
Joanna laughed out loud as she stirred several teaspoons of sugar into her own cup. “I told you, terrible coffee.”
“You drink this? Every day?” Drew ran his tongue on the inside of his mouth, trying to clean away the black, bitter taste.
Joanna nodded. “Actually, with enough sugar and some of this,” she held up a canister of what looked like powdered coffee creamer. “It’s not quite as terrible. That and you’ll get used to it.”
Drew doubted both points.
Joanna sat across the table and took another sip of coffee. Leaning back, the very picture of someone completely at home with herself, she took a long, hard look at him. Drew shifted in his chair, a bit uncomfortable, though he wasn’t sure if from her unrelenting inspection or his system’s reaction to a second sip of the brutal brew.
“You’re not much of a talker.”
The last time I had anything to say to a woman, she rejected my marriage proposal. Doubtful I’ll be making that mistake twice.
“Look, Drew, I read your file.”
The third sip of high octane black stuck in his throat. “You did…you what?” He coughed.
Joanna put a hand on his arm then, and her face settled into an expression far older than her actual age. “Drew, a guy doesn’t leave a job like you did and come here for a simple change of scenery.”
“Well, I did.”
“Really. You got yourself a job teaching History your first shot out of college at the most prestigious private elementary school on the eastern seaboard. Shoot, probably the most prestigious school in the country. You finish your masters, start on a doctorate. Couple years go by. You’ve got a shot to teach at some pretty fancy private high schools. And then, in the middle of what pretty much every teacher on the planet would consider a rock star career, you pull the plug and take a job teaching at a very obscure parochial grade school in a tiny town in the armpit of Wisconsin.”
“Just which file were you reading?”
She patted his hand and leaned back, the smile and cheerful glow back on her face. “Okay, I didn’t see your file. I did a web search on you.”
“Oh, nice to know my life is such an open book, at least on the internet.” And it’s time to change my name and move to an even more obscure place, obviously.
“So why the turned around? Why take this job?”
“I love teaching. “ He looked out the window. “I like cows. I was in search of the worst coffee in a teachers’ lounge.”
Joanna nodded, but her eyes never left his and Drew shifted again, trying to break away from her direct gaze. “Drew, you do get that you and I are going to share a classroom, right? You’re teaching the in the mornings and I’m do the afternoon while you be a principally. So I’m thinking we should be completely honest with each other. You know, no secrets? “
Not likely. Sorry. “Fine. What’s your story?”
Joanne giggled, a girlish, musical sound. “My story is simple. I’m a local girl. My father owned the only barbershop in town until he retired. He and mom tried living in Florida, but the humidity was too much for mom’s arthritis. They live in Arizona now. No brothers or sisters. Guess that’s why I talk to so much. No one told me to be quiet. I’ve wanted to teach here since I was in second grade. I’ve been here two years, I still live in my parents’ house and no, in answer to your biggest question, I’ve never been in love.”
Drew nearly dropped the coffee cup. “What? I-“
Joanna burst out laughing. “I was just checking to see if you were listening! Guess you were.”
And she’s the one I’m sharing a classroom with? Great….
Joanna looked at her watch. “Oh, geez. I gotta go. Mrs. King wants to go over the music for the next six Sundays in church and if I’m late for that little summit, we’ll be stuck with her favorite version of “There is a Balm in Gilead,” extra tremolo on the organ settings.” She shuddered and wrinkled her nose again.
As she scurried out of the room, Drew leaned back in his chair and watched her go. In the quiet left behind, he realized he liked it when she wrinkled her nose.
The last thing in the world Joanna wanted to do at the moment was meet with Mrs. King, and she didn’t feel the least bit guilty about the uncharitable thoughts she had about the pastor’s wife as she strode down the long hallway to the double doors where the school building and the church building were joined in an architectural marriage few liked and no one wanted to change.
Drew Shepaski. Not what I pictured.
Her web search had proved incomplete, that was certain. The sharp, big city man she expected was nothing at all like the reality. The Drew Shepaski she was going to work with was a little rumpled, and more than a little shy.
And his eyes. She didn’t expect those sweet, cornflower blue eyes.
They said he was thirty. But he looked older. And sad. He looked sad.
Well, no doubt he’s running away from something. No one comes to Rock Harbor for the air. Everyone in this town is an orphan or a runaway. Or both.
“Miss Huber? Is that you?”
Joanna looked up to the balcony where Mrs. King sat on the organ bench, looking for all the world like a vulture perched and ready for prey. “Yes, Mrs. King. Sorry I’m late. I was showing the new principal around the school.”
“Yes. I met him this morning. Sullen man, isn’t he?”
Joanna shrugged, not surprised by Mrs. King’s negative assessment of him. The woman had little time for anyone who wasn’t musical. Joanna knew that what she thought of as shyness was probably Mrs. King’s idea of sullen.
Shy is nice.
Joanna couldn’t stop herself from biting her lip at the thought. Still, shy isn’t going to save this school.
“Well, stop dallying down there and come up here. We have a lot to go through.”
Joanne shook herself out of her worried reverie. “Coming, Mrs. King.”
Back a home, in the house her parents left her when they escaped the seemingly endless winters of northeastern Wisconsin, Joanna allowed herself a longer moment to worry. The letter from the school board was very clear. If enrollment didn’t go back up in the next year, teachers were going to be let go and, ultimately, the school was going to be closed.
Joanna closed her eyes her heart warming as the image of the St. Mattews’ she remembered from her childhood came to her mind. The big oak trees surrounding the school, the pastures on either side of the property, the creek down behind the playground. She loved them all.
Now the future looked more than bleak, it looked black. She knew, two years ago, when she started teaching there that enrollment was way down. Families who had been part of Rock Harbor’s community for generations moved away, following jobs as they sold family farms or lost them. Now, St. Matthew’s School, an institution started some hundred years earlier because there was no public school within forty miles of the close knit hamlet at the gateway to the tourism mecca of Door County, Wisconsin. Tourists still bought the cherries that bloomed and sweetened the air in Rock Harbor, but Rock Harbor wasn’t Door County. Mostly tourists just passed by.
A waning population wasn’t the only problem St. Matt’s had. A small town is no place to try and keep a secret, and it seemed, lately , that more and more secrets, scandalous secrets, leaked out from the very core of the school. Joanna poured herself a glass of milk and curled herself into her father’s ratty recliner.
Why would you sign a morals clause in your teaching contract and then be surprised when the school asks you to leave because you’re not living up to those morals?
She tucked her feet under her and rocked back and forth, watching the last of the late summer sunset over Marva Blakely’s barn. She tried to push the memories out of her mind because she knew that with the memories came the anger and the anger always gave her a headache.
The lawsuit ended four years earlier, and destroyed the school’s financial resources. A teacher, a woman Joanna remembered clearly as a lively, beautiful woman with miles of long blonde hair, had sued the school after being terminated for having an affair with a woman.
What did you think was going to be the result when you took a job at a parochial school?
St. Matthew’s won the suit by pointing out that they didn’t care who the affair was with, but fact that she was having an affair at all. Once the court realized St. Matthew’s was upholding the terms of the contract and not discriminating against the woman’s choice of partners, the case was over. They won the suit, but the financial losses were tremendous.
Now, four years later, the outlook was, in a word, dark. A new school board, one made up of men and women not interested only in things like the rules, and the bottom line, were in charge. The concept of things such as mercy, forgiveness, or Christian kindness, were gone. In what some thought to be a preemptive strike against future lawsuits, the school board went on a bit of a witch hunt, pressuring some teachers, including the previous principal, to leave the school under a cloud of suspicion.
Parents, tired of the ever tightening rules of the school, the constant change in the once solid faculty, and the rising costs for books and fees, chose to drive in long distances to other schools. Last year, the school board instituted a tuition fee, something St. Matthews’ had never done. Unable to pay more fees, more families pulled their children out of the school.
The reality, something that Joanna hadn’t shared with the new principal, was that in a year half the teachers would be let go because of the budget. She knew, even with her cheery tour, that things looked bleak enough to him as it was.
We’re four weeks away from the start of what could be the last year the school is open. We’ve got no fifth grade teacher and a shy principal who’s supposed to double the enrollment by next fall.
I’ll bet they didn’t tell him that. I’ll bet he’s not even aware of what he’s just walked into.
She finished her glass of milk and leaned against the headrest of the recliner.
I hope he can handle it. The school needs a good leader desperately.
Closing her eyes, Joanna called Drew Shepaski’s image to her mind as sleep washed over her.
A shy man, with such beautiful, beautiful blue eyes.