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The Man In The Woods
By Rosemary Wells
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Rosemary Wells
All rights reserved.
First thing in the morning on the second day of school Helen Curragh placed five heavy textbooks, her binder, and the rest of her belongings on the shelf of locker number 1123. Unfortunately she closed the door and snapped the padlock shut before she'd tried out the combination. She squinted at the little tag which had been wired to the lock.
Memorize this combination: 34 left–56 right–3. Do not tell any other student your combination. Any student who tampers with another student's lock is subject to suspension.
C. Casey, Asst. Prin.
Helen spun the dial and tried the numbers. The lock did not open. She tried the opposite direction. The lock didn't open. She tried it three more times before banging it, but the lock just dangled from its chrome hasp.
Miss Podell, her homeroom teacher, had since vanished inside the classroom. Helen breathed deeply to drive away despair. All the other students around her were experimenting with their lockers, but none had been as rash as she. Helen yanked on the lock with both hands and all her strength.
"What's the matter?" asked a sandy-haired boy who was passing by in the hall.
"It won't open," said Helen.
"Lemme see," he said and gave her a helpless-girl look that Helen hated.
"What's the combination? Lemme see the tag on your lock."
"I'm not supposed to tell," Helen answered. "The tag says—"
"Aw, forget that," said the boy. "I won't steal your gym suit." He began twirling the dial.
Helen stood first on one foot, then on the other. This boy was so snippy she wished he would fail miserably. On the other hand positively everything she needed for the whole day was in the locker. She supposed it was all right that he was tampering with her lock. She stared at the back of his head. He didn't look as if he'd rob her locker. His hair was cut short and lay flat except for a cowlick smack in the middle. This morning's newspaper headlines suddenly occurred to her. "WHO IS THIS TEEN THUG?" the New Bedford Post-Dispatch had asked. The boy at her locker certainly looked nothing like what the paper had dubbed the "Punk Rock Thrower." The face in the police drawing resembled the Neanderthal man—or was it the Piltdown man?—in her science book. The Punk Rock Thrower had for some time been standing on the lonely hillsides around New Bedford, hurling rocks at passing cars. So far the police had no idea who it was.
"Can't get it," said the sandy-haired boy. "Must have the wrong tag on your lock."
Helen looked imploringly at him despite herself. "But my books, my notebook, my lunch, my sneakers ... everything's in there," she said.
The boy only shrugged. "Welcome to the real world," he said and picked up his books and loped down the hall.
Helen pounded on her locker. It was one of the hundreds that lined every corridor in the school. It had queer little vents, top and bottom, as if to prevent the suffocation of a small animal were it to be put inside. Helen faced a day of explanations.
She wished she were back home in her warm bed. She wished she were back at St. Theresa's, where her books had been kept unlocked in an old-fashioned desk with an inkwell hole, and she didn't have to run to a different classroom every forty-five minutes. Why was this happening to her? Why did New Bedford Regional have to offer a better education than St. Theresa's High School? Last year her father had been quite convincing: St. Theresa's with its well-meaning nuns could not afford even a decent lab or art room. It didn't hold a candle to the regular high school, and Helen would never get into a good college with a second-rate parochial-school education behind her. At the time the decision to go to the big high school seemed exciting. There was little left at St. Theresa's for her anyway. Her best and closest friend, Jenny Calhoun, had moved away to Houston, Texas. Tiny pricklings bothered Helen's eyes. She missed Jenny. Horribly.
As each minute went by, masses of students moved faster and faster in both directions past her. Four minutes were allotted between class bells. Four minutes to dash from the old building to the new. Four minutes to charge, dry-throated, up or down a jam-packed stairway. English was Helen's first class. She dared not be late and started to run. Where would the office be in this enormous school? Would anybody even be interested in her unopened locker? She felt completely naked without her books. She felt completely Saturdayish without her St. Theresa's uniform.
"You mean you put your books in your locker before you tried out the combination?" Helen was asked by her teachers all morning long. Each time she had to admit this was true. She knew that even if she got straight A's until June, every teacher in the school would think of her as an imbecile for the rest of the year.
During the morning she had collected several pieces of mismatched notepaper, borrowed hastily, on which she'd written, with a borrowed pencil, notes, homework assignments, and things to be remembered for ever and ever. Because her schedule with classroom locations was pasted on the inside cover of her locked-away binder, she was also late to all her classes and by lunchtime had been forced to describe her dilemma in front of a fully seated class three times.
While the other girls dressed for gym, the gym teacher placed an angry-looking check mark next to Helen's name in a Naugahyde ledger. Helen was advised that three checks meant failure in gym for the semester. She was then directed to find the janitor in the basement of the old building in the hope he could open her padlock.
Helen wandered, ducking under fat, echoing heating pipes and dodging around boilers, through a maze of passageways. In a paper cup she found a dead cigar butt that might have belonged to a janitor, but the owner was nowhere to be found. One of the dim, slug-brown hallways ended at a lighted door. The school crest and the word Whaler were painted on the frosted pane in red. Pleasant sounds of busyness leaked through the door, but Helen was afraid to open it. Instead she trudged up a flight of stairs, fighting off an overwhelming yearning to escape the school and run all the way home.
"Hall pass, please," a girl snapped at her as she emerged from the stairwell.
"I haven't got one," said Helen to the flat oval face over the badge that said Hall Proctor. "The gym teacher says they haven't been printed up yet for the year." Helen clutched the assorted bits of notepaper close to her chest.
"You'll have to report to the office then," said the hall proctor.
"The office!" Helen gasped. "I've been looking for the office all day! You see, I locked all my stuff in my locker, and I can't get it open. Even my lunch and my lunch money," she added thoughtfully, eyeing a bag of M&M's on the proctor's table. The oval face with the thin lips and the tiny eyes followed her gaze. The M&M's were emptied out onto an open math book on the table. "Only the dark-brown ones," instructed the proctor. "You a freshman?" she asked.
Helen picked out all five dark-brown ones. "Yes," she answered.
"The office is on the third floor of the new building, west wing. Go down this hall, through the breezeway, turn left, up three flights, turn right, right again, and there it is. It's funny," she said to Helen's fleeing back. "You look young even to be a freshman."
Helen talked to God as she raced down the hall. Why am I so stupid? she asked. Why do I have to look so young? Please, dear God, why do I have to weigh only eighty-one pounds, and why did you give me such hideous naturally curly hair?
When Helen was four years old, her mother died, leaving her and her father with Aunt Stella. Helen could barely remember her mother now, but she still dreamed about her and imagined she was around in difficult moments. She prayed to God nightly that in His compassion He would compensate her for being half an orphan. Helen wished that first of all, as a sort of coming-of-age present, God would straighten her hair. Then, if in a period of about three to six weeks he could slowly fill out her 28AAA bra to perhaps a 32A, she would feel normal at last. That wasn't asking much. Still, Helen knew He had no intention of doing these things because, as Sister Ignatius Paul had explained to her, she had already been handsomely compensated for the balance of her life by her extraordinary ability to draw, and everything had already been settled.
Helen found the office. A woman behind a window who looked as if she had a headache asked Helen for her hall pass. Helen said she had none. The brisk, pained voice directed her to another office across the hall.
"It's about my locker!" said Helen to the suddenly closed window. "The combination on the tag was wrong, and I locked all my things in it!" She heard her own voice rise squeakily.
"Get a pass from Mr. Casey first," answered the disembodied voice.
Wearily Helen pushed open the door across the hallway.
Clement Casey, discipline officer and assistant principal, stood with one leg resting on a chair, lion-tamer fashion. Across from him, slouching and stuffed into a first-grader-sized desk was Stubby Atlas. Helen recognized Stubby instantly. He was several years older than she, but there had been no end of whispering about him at St. Theresa's because his father was supposed to be a racketeer. Stubby had been kicked out for doing something unmentionable. Even Jujube Nelson, Stubby's best friend, wouldn't tell the rest of St. Theresa's what it was.
Mr. Casey, rosy cheeked and immaculate, a full head shorter than Stubby, looked at Helen in astonishment. "Are you in some sort of trouble?" he asked.
"It's my locker," said Helen. She bit down on her lip. "I locked all my things in it, and it won't open. The tag—"
"Across the hall," said Mr. Casey. "They handle that across the hall."
"But they sent me to you," she answered, her voice beginning to squeak again.
Mr. Casey opened the door wide. "Roberta!" he yelled in a voice much bigger than himself. "Help this girl out, and don't send anyone else to me for anything short of murder! You hear?"
Behind Mr. Casey's back Stubby had removed a piece of costume jewelry from the pocket of his leather jacket. It was a string of beads that looked something like amber with an eagle attached to it. He swung it around his head like a bola. Helen looked at Stubby's face. His eyes were leering slits, set in pulpy, acne-scarred cheeks. It was not a face to forget.
"Gimme that!" said Mr. Casey. He snatched the chain away.
"It's my motha's!" said Stubby, winking evilly at Helen.
"I'll bet it's your mother's," Mr. Casey growled. "You either ripped it off some poor old lady on the way to school, or you stole it out of one of Perry and Crowe's trucks this summer. You had a job loading them, didn't you? You just slipped it out of a package, didn't you?"
Stubby slumped back away from Mr. Casey's jutting jaw. "I never stole nothing from those trucks," he said with an amused smile at the ceiling. "Ask Mr. Perry. Ask him."
"You got kicked out of St. Theresa's, didn't you?" Mr. Casey went on in a furious voice. "I got a letter about you from Sister Luke, Mother Luke, whatever her name is, over there. She warned me about you. You're into drugs too, aren't you, Atlas? Well, I'll tell you something ...
Helen escaped the room. The last she saw of Stubby, he was still staring at the ceiling with an untroubled grin on his face.
"What's your locker number?" asked Roberta in a stale tone through her window.
"Locker number?" Helen asked.
"There are over three thousand lockers in this school," came the bored reply. "Each one has a number on a little plate. What's yours?"
"I ... don't know."
"Better find out." The window closed. The bell rang. Helen had no time to run back and find her locker number. History, she reminded herself. Because she loved it, at least for this class she felt prepared.
The history teacher, Mr. Brzostoski, was considered an oddball. That, Helen had concluded the day before from the amount of puzzlement in the classroom. The first thing he had said was that Brzostoski was too long a name to say and that everyone should call him Mr. Bro. The second was that the textbook was dull as dishwater and he would use it only as much as he had to. These openers had made everyone suspicious but hopeful that he might be easy. He dashed this hope by saying he expected every student to think and not just memorize and that he intended to be very tough. This had thrown the whole class into a silent tailspin.
Helen liked him. When she arrived at his class late, he didn't ask her why. He was eating a banana and simply nodded to her and gave her a thin blue essay book. He asked her to write everything she knew about the American Revolution.
The rest of the class was already sweating over this assignment. Helen took a seat in the back and began to write. The American Revolution, like the many historical events where England had been in the wrong, was a favorite subject of her father's. His buttery Irish brogue, which he turned on and off at will, rang in her ears. She filled six pages easily. Then on a blank sheet at the back she began to draw.
Helen was good at hiding the drawings she made in her notebook. None of the teachers at St. Theresa's had really minded her doing this. Helen was the school artist and had been since she could remember. Still, she didn't like hurting their feelings and pretended always to be taking voluminous notes while she was really caricaturing the teachers and her classmates or drawing political cartoons, which she saved for the delight of her father.
For eight years the nuns had asked the same simple artwork for every season of the year. Leaf tracings in October, turkey cutouts at Thanksgiving, angels at Christmas. Helen's turkeys were always distinguishable from the rest in the row that hung above the blackboard. There was always great expression in the eyes, and she usually added something extra, like a Pilgrim being devoured by his own turkey. Her angels dove athletically across St. Theresa's windowpanes in December, and one Easter she had done a large poster showing a mass of frightened chicks and rabbits pursued by a savage band of children. She had titled this "We Celebrate Our Lord's Resurrection by Torturing Innocent Animals for Profit!"
One day Sister Ignatius Paul had sat her down and shown her a certain page in the Sunday school book.
"What do you think of that, Helen?" she had asked.
On the page was an enormous hand, its wrist disappearing into a cumulus cloud above. In the hand were jewels, and the jewels dripped down to a bunch of miniature people, snatching at them from below.
"In olden times," Sister Ignatius read aloud to Helen, "jewels and money were called talents. Nowadays Our Lord gives us gifts, or talents, when He wants us to carry out His work in a special way.
"What do you think of that?" asked Sister Ignatius, as if she'd hidden jelly beans up the sleeve of her habit as a surprise reward for the right answer.
"The thumb is drawn wrong," Helen had observed seriously, and she had redrawn the hand properly on another piece of paper. It was then that Sister Ignatius told her that God had given her a special gift, a great gift, and she must use it to glorify His name. Sister had added that it was possible that God had chosen Helen because her mother had died. This part was unclear to Helen, as she could draw extraordinarily well even before her mother had taken sick, but she supposed that God had known about the shape of things to come ahead of time.
Mr. Brzostoski had eaten three bananas during the course of the class. Helen was so hungry she could barely look at them. She could have eaten a banana skin. The bell rang, and slitting the drawing out of the blue book, Helen passed in her composition with everyone else.
"Wait a minute!" said Mr. Brzostoski. He caught hold of her arm as she passed his desk. "That too!" he said and tweaked the drawing out of her hands. He looked at it for just a second and then said, "Come see me after school, please."
Helen stood in the doorway. The history class pushed by her on its way out. The homeroom class was piling in. "Out of the way!" yelled someone, and she followed a pink Shetland sweater miserably back to Miss Podell's room.
Excerpted from The Man In The Woods by Rosemary Wells. Copyright © 1984 Rosemary Wells. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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