When I entered my eleventh grade science class after the Christmas break and saw the skeleton in the back of the room, I knew it was Mr. Cole. He’d donated his body to science, the paper had said, so I knew the mortician had skinned him, bleached his bones, and glued them together for the school. Now they watched over me with hollow, blinded eyes, like a dead God in his enlightened heaven.
* * *
I began my junior year in the fall of 1984 in Cole’s Remedial English class.
He called it “Catch-up English,” but it was worse than that—I’d bombed my SAT Exam and was put with the football players and the Mexicans who barely spoke or read English at all.
Seeing Cole for the first time was horrifying—his sallow, withered complexion, his chest-long gray and black beard, his dark horn-rimmed glasses and his shiny head. He flunked people, it was rumored, just for the fun of flunking them.
“I’m Cole,” he told us the first day. “I expect excellence from all my students, even the dumb ones. I’ll tolerate no less from you.”
He slurred his “S’s” and did not move his lips when he talked. The left side of his face drooped and his left eye bugged out. Cole was fodder for student imitations, and by the end of the first week Lee Martin perfected one by protruding his lower lip and slobbering onto his chin as he barked Cole-isms: “Protagonist.” “Antagonist.” “Sophocles.” And “Katharsis.” This last word sent us into hysterics, since Cole held onto the second vowel and then punched the “s.” A football player, Lee stood about three inches taller than me and was so popular that all the rest of us fought to be seen watching his act.
“Aristophanes!” pronounced Lee, to the audience’s howls.
* * *
“You’ve gotta me out of that class,” I told my mother after the first day. “The old man slobbers and stutters so much I can’t understand what he’s saying.”
She’d just gotten home from her job at an insurance company, and she took off her heels and walked around the house in her bare stockings as I followed her from room to room.
I’d taken off my shoes, too, and wore my thick white gym socks.
“Those smell terrible,” my mother said. “Take them off and put them in the wash.”
By the time I’d obeyed her command, she was in the kitchen mixing a drink. “You have to take English,” she said.
“Not from Cole,” I said. “I can’t understand what he’s saying. It’s like half his face has been frozen or something.”
She touched my arm, as she always did when I was upset, and told me to go do my homework.
“But I’m supposed to read this stupid Greek play and I don’t even understand it.”
“Try,” she said.
That night, when I tried to present my case to my father, he rolled his eyes and told me I was being a baby.
“I’m not taking you out of any classes,” he said. He sat down in his Lazy-boy with his evening cocktail and turned on the television to a rerun of The Outer Limits on cable. When he’d first seen my SAT scores my father called me an idiot and swore he’d kick me out of the house if I didn’t raise them with a second try.
My mother, still mixing her own evening cocktail, rebuffed him from the kitchen. “I’ve heard four different sets of parents tried to have Mr. Cole fired last year,” she said. “He flunked so many kids they sent him in front of the School Board.”
“That’s because those kids were morons,” said my father. He looked at me as he sipped his apple martini and then smiled. “Are you a moron, too?” He grinned and winked.
I hated it when he winked at me. He was trying to be funny, but not really—he was being funny but stabbing me in the back at the same time.
“John,” my mother snapped.
“I’m asking him a legitimate question,” he said, still grinning. “It’s all psychological.” He looked at me again. “Are you a moron?”
I did not want to answer. I stood there, inches from his chair, and dreamed of tipping it over so he’d fall backward and break his neck.
“Answer me,” he said again. This time his tone had changed a little and he sounded authoritative, the way he sounded when he was about lecture me for disobedience. “Are you a moron?”
“I dunno,” I said.
“I dunno” was secret code. It’s what you said when you really wanted to say, “Fuck you, asshole, and the horse you road in on!” But you couldn’t say that to an adult. So you said, “I dunno.”
My father had not caught on. “Did you say, ‘no?'” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I lied.
He smiled and sipped his martini. “See,” he said. “The kid’s had a change of heart and decided to pass. Isn’t that right, Bryan?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. But “yes, sir” isn’t what I thought.
My mother’s face was bright red when she sat down on the sofa across from my father. She’d taken off her stockings and put her bare feet on the cushions, settling them where I could see their soles. I noticed a corn on one toe and saw the redness of the balls of her feet. “I don’t think they should flunk eleventh graders,” she said.
“Who should they flunk, then?” my father demanded. He raised his voice enough that I could tell this wasn’t his first martini of the day. I wondered if my mother knew.
“That’s no reason to ask the boy if he’s stupid,” she said, her tone suddenly soft.
“I didn’t say stupid. I said moron.”
“Stop calling him names.”
My father waited to respond. When he finally spoke, he’d lost all playfulness in his tone. “Somebody’s got to call him names,” he said. “You coddle him and baby him like he was a little puppy. And you know where that’s gotten him? Remedial fucking English.”
My mother watched the television program, and when it was over she warmed frozen dinners in the microwave and replenished my father’s martini and did not speak of school again.
But as she rose from the couch, I saw her mouth the word, “Asshole.”
* * *
By the third week I was hopelessly overmatched and eternally lost. We’d been given our first assignment, a paper on Oedipus, which I found to be a jumble of long, dumb speeches and stupid people. Cole gave us a week to write five pages—I didn’t even think about it until the night before. On the morning the paper was due, I begged my parents to keep me out of school.
.”You are a moron,” my father said. “How come you didn’t write your stupid paper?”
“I dunno,” I said.
“Have you even written a word?”
“Idiot,” said my father.
“He’s not an idiot,” said my mother.
“He thinks the paper fairy will put a paper under his pillow at night. Isn’t that what you think?”
“I ought to make you go to school and take an `F’!” my father said. “I really ought to.”
But he didn’t. Since the paper was due during the third period of the day, he let me stay at home to write it. My mother called in sick to work so she could type.
“How many hours will you miss?” my father asked her.
“Four,” she said. “I’ll get in by noon.”
He looked at me and smiled. “Four hours,” he said. “That’s five dollars an hour times four hours. Are you an idiot at math as well?”
“Then how much is that?”
“John, you’re embarrassing him—”
“He should be embarrassed,” said my father. “Five times four, hotshot. You learn that by the eleventh grade? Huh?”
“Twenty,” I said.
“Twenty,” he repeated. “Twenty dollars that could’ve gone into the bank.” He smiled and scratched at his mustache and then caressed the corners of his mouth. “I’m holding it out of your allowance,” he said.
“John—” said my mother.
“How else is he gonna learn?” he demanded. “One Andrew Jackson. How many weeks before you see another greenback out’a my ass?” Then he smiled. “Do good on the test,” he added.
“Let’s get to work,” my mother said after he left.
During the first part of the morning my mother and I reread Oedipus. She forced me to sit at the dining room table and read key scenes aloud—the opening chorus, the first appearance of Oedipus, the prophecy of Tiresias.
“Don’t you see the irony?” my mother said. “The blind prophet sees the sin of Oedipus, while the man who sinned doesn’t see his crime?”
I wanted to see it—wanted to see it for her—but I saw nothing. It made me sick to think of a man marrying his mother, killing his father, gouging out own his eyes. She told me to brainstorm, but all I could think about was gouging out my own father’s eyes with a pair of chopsticks we kept in the utensil drawer in the kitchen.
So I wrote nothing.
At 9:15 I glanced at the clock and panicked—I’d fought it as long as I could, and now I began to cry. The tears were light at first, but after a few minutes I’d released the floodgate, letting out a long, involuntary wail. My mother appeared at my side instantly, caressing my arm, speaking softly into my ear.
“It’s okay, Bryan,” she told me. “You can do this. Don’t worry. It’s okay.”
And then she sat down and began to type.
* * *
When Cole passed back the papers, he gave mine back last.
“There is one young man in the class,” Cole said as he turned to face me, “whose dissection of the play and comprehension of its irony was far beyond everyone else. Well done, Mr. Palmer. You’re my star student now.”
Lee Martin cornered me later in an empty hall. “You’re my star student,” he slurred, dropping his lip halfway to his jaw. He gave me a little shove and then laughed a high-pitched laugh. “Who are you fooling?” he said. “You’re like the rest of us, you didn’t understand jack shit about that play.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Then tell me what you wrote.”
“I don’t have to tell you.”
I tried to push past Lee, but he slapped my books out of my hands. The dropped onto the floor in a heap, and Lee stood over me, towered over me, waiting. I froze and waited for him to punch me in the face.
“Aren’t you going to pick them up?” he asked.
I did not move. Lee studied me, the smile on his face broadening as he marked the difference in our heights and muscles, in his firm, straight posture and what I knew must read as my fearful slumping. Finally, he broke into a toothy grin.
“I’m just jerking with you,” he said. “Anyone with enough balls to cheat on Cole is okay by my book.” And then he pulled me close. “Let me cheat off your papers,” he said.
* * *
“Antigone,” Cole lectured, “is the story of Oedipus’ children.” He had a distinctly yellow tone to his skin that morning, the color of a healing bruise. “The two boys fought a war, and while one fought on the side of King Creon and Greece, the other rebelled against the king. Both were killed, and the good son was buried. But the rebellious son, Polynices, was left unburied outside of town.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Lee’ notebook. He’d stopped taking notes. Instead, he’d begun sketching Cole—the bugged out eye, the drooping face, the wavy beard. I stifled a laugh.
“Polynices’ soul was doomed to walk the earth forever,” Cole droned. I glanced back at Lee’s drawing. He’d titled it, “Yellow Beard.”
* * *
My father liked to watch John Wayne movies on Saturday afternoons. One day when I passed through the living room, I saw the soldiers in the movie had killed an Indian and left him unburied as a punishment.
“How come they’re doing that?” I asked.
“It’s part of their primitive beliefs,” he said. “They think if you don’t bury a body, then the soul won’t go to heaven. It will float around on the earth. You know. Ghosts.”
“That’s so cool,” I said. “That’s what we just had happen in the play we’re studying at school.”
My father sipped his martini and did not look away from the television screen. “I’m trying to watch a movie,” he said.
He looked back at me. “So,” he said. “How much studying have you done so you can get out of retardo class?”
I pretended not to hear him and went into my room and cried.
* * *
Cole gave us an in-class examination essay on Antigone. I spent the first fifteen minutes staring at the paper, petrified. When I finally began to write, I did not know what to say.
Antigone is this girl whose brother gets killed in war and she wants to bury him.
It didn’t sound like my mother’s words at all. I crossed out the sentence and tried to write again.
There’s this dude, Polynices, and he gets killed in combat and the king Creon wants him to not be buried but his sister Antigone wants to bury him so hell go to heaven and their is not anything the king can do about it to.
I stared at the paper. Mother, help me, I thought. What do I write now?
“I hear he’s drunk himself to death,” Lee said. The old man’s skin was unmistakably yellow now, and there were rumors flying about the school as to its cause.
“How do you drink yourself to death?” I asked.
“It means you drink so much alcohol that it kills you.”
I pictured my father and hoped one night he would drink so many martinis that he’d just keel over and be done with it right then and there.
“Dude,” I said. “Is that possible to drink yourself to death?”
Lee laughed. “Sure it’s possible. It’s called sclerosis of the liver,” he said. “And Old Man Cole has it. It turned him yellow.”
I thought that was cool.
* * *
Cole did not pass back my in-class essay with the rest of the papers. He did not address me in front of the class this time, and he did not even look at me before the bell rang.
“Mr. Palmer,” he said as I rose from my desk and started to the door. “Would you talk with me for a moment?”
He waited until all the other students were gone before he said anything. Cole closed the door and sat down in his desk and looked at me.
“You didn’t write that first paper, did you?” he asked.
I felt weak. I started to sit down in the desk nearest Cole’s, but then realized I might give myself away by sitting down. Instead, I stood straight and tried to look confident.
“Sure, I wrote it,” I said.
“What’s ironic about Antigone?” he asked.
I did not move. “What?”
“You heard me. Your first paper was about irony. If you understand the concept so well, tell me what’s ironic about Antigone.”
Cole glared at me. For the first time, I noticed that his eyes looked different directions. The left seemed bigger than the right, and the color wasn’t the same, either—his right eye was dark brown, with little red veins, but his left eye was much more pale and deep-set. And the left side of his face seemed flat—almost mashed, melted. He focused on me with his right eye, forgetting—even ignoring the left.
“Why’d you make an “A” on the fist paper and bomb this one?” he asked.
“Did you pay attention to the lectures?”
“Mr. Palmer, look at me.” I tried to look in his left eye, but he took my head in both his hands and turned it until I stared directly into his right. “Did you write that first paper?” he demanded.
I swallowed hard and then tried to straighten my posture so I’d look confident. “Yes, sir,” I lied.
He did not break eye contact. “You swear?”
I could not speak. I nodded my head.
“I know you and your friends have been making fun of me,” Cole said. “You think you can cheat on a paper and pass it by me? Do you?” He held my head tighter in his hands and shook it. “I’m watching you. You little shit. I’ll catch you, Mr. Palmer, in all your lies and deceit, and when I do, I’ll bring the wrath of God down on your head. Do you hear me? I’ll catch you in your lies, so help me God!”
And those were the last words I ever heard Mr. Cole say.
* * *
“Julius Montgomery Cole,” my father read from the obituary column one day in late-December as we sat at the breakfast table, “aged fifty-five.” He lowered the paper and looked at me. “You’ve been afraid all this time of a man named Julius!”
My mother hit my father’s arm. “It’s rude to speak ill of the dead,” she said.
“You don’t care if he’s dead, do you, Bryan?” he asked.
“Quit saying that phrase,” he said. “It’s annoying.”
He raised the paper and began to read again. “Says here he had cancer. Figure that’s what made him turn yellow? And listen to this. There’s not even going to be a funeral.”
“No funeral?” said my mother. “Isn’t that a bit odd?”
“Says you should donate to your favorite charity, and he donated his body to science.”
“What’s donated to science mean?” I asked.
“It means he was a kook,” my father said.
* * *
“Is Mr. Cole in heaven?” I asked my mother the night after Mr. Cole died. She still came into the room each night before I went to sleep to tuck me in, and as a child she forced me to say my prayers. She knelt off the edge of the bed and folded her hands on my chest and began the prayer, “Thank you Jesus for this day,” and asked me to finish—take care of this person and this person and this person especially. And that night, the person I was especially worried about was Old Man Cole.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you think he’s in heaven?”
“No,” I said.
“That makes me very sad. Don’t you want Mr. Cole to be in heaven?”
“Then you should pray that God takes him to heaven. Pray for Mr. Cole.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Now,” she said.
She made me pray a special prayer for his immortal soul, which should have been buried but wasn’t, it was donated to science, which, she said, proved once and for all he wasn’t a man of God. She told me to pray God would forgive Mr. Cole for not having a Christian burial.
“So what does it mean donated to science?” I asked.
She chose her words carefully. “Some people,” she said. “Who are not Christians and have not read in the Bible that God will resurrect your body at the end of time—some people donate their bodies to science and let people work on them.”
“Work on them how?”
She tried to describe what they did with cadavers—cut them up. Look at the organs. Use them in a science class. “I don’t know what all they do with them,” she concluded. “But they use all the different parts. You know. They might take the brain to a lab and study it. Maybe the heart. And the skeleton. That’s where they get skeletons and bones and things for classes and museums. From cadavers.”
“I don’t ever want to be a cadaver,” I told her.
“Okay,” she said.
When she’d left the room and I lay alone in the darkness, I could not close my eyes for fear of seeing Cole’s rotting face laid out on an cold gray slab.
* * *
“I’m watching you,” he says. I look down and see Cole, but he’s turning yellow and his skin melts. It drips from his bald head until I see the sickly yellow skull beneath. “Watching you,” he says again. His eyeballs are gone, replaced by hollow black sockets. I try to run, but he’s right behind me now. “You can’t get away,” he says. His lips are gone, and I see all his teeth, like he’s smiling, but he’s not. He bites at me. Trying to rip the flesh from my throat. “You’re a failure,” he says. “You deserve to be a cadaver, like me.” I try to scream.
* * *
My mother held me in the bed. I’d awakend the whole house. My father called me a baby.
“Do you need to speak to someone?” she asked.
“About your teacher’s death? I know sometimes we like our teachers—”
“I hated him,” I said.
And I closed my eyes for fear that Cole had heard me say it.
* * *
Cole’s skeleton was propped in the back of the science room and the various parts were labeled with red and blue marks. At first I tried to convince myself it wasn’t him. “You’re being ridiculous,” I told myself. “Just because he donates his body to science and then a skeleton appears doesn’t mean it’s him.”
But then things began to happen.
I felt him watching me from across the room. Sometimes, when the teacher wasn’t looking, I’d sneak a glance back to find him—and he was always looking my way. Smiling.
“Can’t get away, can you Bryan?” he asked one day as I took a test. I’d glanced at the paper on the desk next to mine—just a quick glance to get the answer on number six, just one answer, that’s all. I glanced and I heard his voice.
“I’ll tell the world what you just did,” said Cole.
“No,” I said.
“You little cheater. You know what God does to cheaters? He takes away their eyes. Do you hear me? I’ll gouge out your eyes!”
I swung around to find the skeleton in the back of the room and saw—deep in the recesses of the skull—the glimmer of glass.
* * *
I woke up that night in my own bed about 2:30 AM in a cold sweat, Cole’s image still burned into my eyes. I sat up and looked around the dark room. Was he there? I felt a presence, heard a voice ringing in my ears.
“I’m watching you,” he said faintly. “Watching you, Bryan. Bryan. Bryan.”
By the time I’d crawled out of my bedroom window I could hear Cole’s voice so clearly I thought he might be beside me in the night. “What do you think you’re doing, boy? Don’t you know I see you? I’m taking down all your offenses, and I’m giving them to God.”
I’d stolen my father’s car keys before going to bed. I got in and drove into the night without headlights at first, fearful my parents would see the light in the street and rise. I didn’t turn them on until I was nearly to the school.
The science room had a big glass window facing the courtyard. When I reached it I opened the car trunk and withdrew the tools I’d placed there early in the evening—a bag of rocks and a shovel. All right, I told myself. You know what to do. If they had a burglar alarm I was sunk. One rock, right through the glass, I thought. Aim it just right. And if the alarms go off, I’ve got about five minutes before the cops come. Just one rock. . .
I did it without thinking. Snatched the biggest rock from the sack and hurled it right at the glass. It shattered instantly, shards tinkling onto the hard tile floor of the classroom. It left a tiny hole big enough to expand, big enough I’d eventually fit through it, and—nothing else. No sounds. No alarms. Just the silence of the night.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Cole roared in my ears.
“Shut up,” I said.
I shattered the remaining glass with my shovel. Then I retrieved a flashlight and climbed into the classroom.
Cole’s skeleton stood in the dark.
“Want to join me in hell?” he hissed.
Cole stood in the back, the whiteness of his bones illuminated against the moonlight. I kept the flashlight poised like a club, just in case his spirit chose to attack, but was amazed once I reached him how easily the bones gave way to me. The biology teacher had mounted them on a frame and drilled a hole into the skull, deftly hanging the bones from a contraption so they would all stay together. I grabbed the skeleton and slung it across my shoulder. Then, I climbed out of the classroom, the shovel in one hand and the flashlight in the other. I became suddenly aware of the soft milk-white glow of moonlight over the schoolyard. The bones sounded with each step, creaking, shaking, rattling along.
“Put me back,” Cole hissed. “Put me back or you’re going to hell!”
I shoved the bones in the trunk and slammed the lid. Then, I stood by the car awhile and struggled to control my tears.
“I see you crying, you little baby,” Cole said. “You’ll never get rid of me. You’re not enough of a man!”
I heard his voice as I climbed into the car and drove into the night. “Remedial English!” he laughed. “You’re a moron.”
“Shut up,” I said again. But my voice was so soft and weak that not even I was swayed by it.
I drove out of town and onto the old highway that ran north of town, out into the pine trees and the darkness. Cole howled as I drove, invisibly slinking next to me in the car seat, rubbing his skull against my neck, and whispering in my ear.
“You’ll never be rid of me,” he said. “I know you let Lee cheat off your paper. And I know you copied the test in science. And I’m going to tell.”
I pulled off the highway onto a farm-to-market road and randomly chose a clearing in the trees, no lights or cars in sight. The bones had not moved when I opened the trunk; they lay crumpled in a heap by the spare tire.
“All right, Cole,” I said. “Time to rest.”
I hoisted the skeleton over my shoulder again and carried him out into the night as I shone my flashlight in front of me, watching for snakes.
“Are you too scared to even walk through the woods, little boy?” Cole snarled.
The bones rattled and crackled against my back. I felt the touch of Cole’s skull upon the small of my back. Screaming, I hurled the old man onto the earth and hoisted the shovel over my head like an ax.
“Be gone, spirit!” I screamed. I brought the full force of the shovel’s head onto Cole’s skull. It crunched.
I hoisted the shovel and slammed it into Cole again. And again. And again.
When I finally caught my breath, the skull had been crushed into a dozen pieces.
Then, in silence at last, I stabbed the shovel into the soft ground and began to dig the old man’s grave.