Read an ExcerptThe Big Lie
By Richard Johnston AuthorHouse Copyright © 2007 Richard Johnston
All right reserved.
Chapter One Bill Helmer awoke that morning earlier than was his habit. As if impelled by some inner force, he was out of bed and standing by the big double windows before he was fully awake. There was little traffic along the quay and no boats moving on the Seine past I'île Saint-Louis. The arches of le pont Marie were veiled in morning mist drifting upriver with the breeze. Across the river two men were sleeping on the stone parapet. Above them he made out the letters splashed in red AMERICAINS EN AMERIQUE.
Eastward bound traffic on the quai des Célestins frightened a flock of sparrows into rising from the parapet along the river wheeling in a graceful arc toward the towers of Notre Dame.
Bill stood there for a moment fighting the urge to crawl back into bed but also trying to discover the source of his feeling that this was no ordinary beginning. Sitting on the windowsill he shoved his feet into his slippers. Sleep was gone as he remembered. This was opening day.
Pulling himself away from the scene he went into the kitchen and placed leftover coffee on a low flame while he shaved and showered. Even the needles of hot water on his back failed to give him the usual feeling of relaxation. He rummaged for his clothes as he dressed, gulped down his coffee and departed.
The traffic on the Left Bank was light. While responding to the demands of driving he tried to concentrate on the day ahead. Place St. Michel, la Chambre des Députés, Trocadero-these familiar landmarks had only a shadowy substance this morning.
He rolled down his window as he entered his favorite shortcut through the Bois de Boulogne. Following a winding road he passed a column of French soldiers marching briskly behind a sergeant. Th is brought to mind Captain Murphy and he tromped down on the pedal. Bill could see Murphy's eyes. "Coming back next year, Mr. Helmer? I hope you can get the school under better control than last year."
Arriving at school he found two buses unloading students. Officers and enlisted men from the Transportation Section dashed about carrying clipboards, confirming with military precision the confusion of opening day.
"Good morning, sir," the transportation sergeant at the gate greeted him. "All set for the stampede?"
"As ready as we'll ever be I guess. How are the bus runs shaping up?"
"One hell of a mess. We're picking up students who didn't register, kids and mothers on every corner. We already got two drivers out on second runs. Where do all these people come from?"
Bill smiled. "Cheer up, sergeant. It'll all shake down in a few weeks." Again he had that tight feeling in his stomach as he walked on toward the office.
"Morning, Mr. Helmer." The transportation officer stepped along with him. "It's these damn French drivers who are screwing up the works. They all made trial runs last week but they don't know up from down. Every time some mother yells at them in English they go four or five blocks off the route to pick up her brats."
A driver came up waving his arms indignantly.
"Monsieur le directeur, what am I to do? Captain says to park here the bus. The major says to park there the bus. Je veux bien faire mon travail. Everybody says me something different. Merde alors. Merde!"
A group of children waiting for a transfer bus to the elementary school were chanting:
Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, Peas porridge in the pot, nine days old
Pausing to watch them Bill could feel their excitement. He found the nursery rhyme turning around and around in his head and he recalled another first day of school. So gripping was the memory that the blood rushed to his forehead.
Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold ...
He was trudging across the schoolyard of Spring Valley School in new knee-pants and button shoes. A group of little girls were chanting.
Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold ...
He had stopped to watch some third-graders playing marbles.
"Hey, look, fellas. Look at the girls' shoes. Ain't they purty?"
"Whatcha wearin' girl shoes for? Whatchur name, kid?"
"Hey, that's the Helmers down by the railroad tracks. My pop said old man Helmer don't believe in God. They're poor white trash."
Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold ...
Egged on by the older boys a group of third-graders gathered around and pranced in a circle pointing, "Look at the girls' shoes. Where's your skirt, Billy? Little girl wants her mommy."
As the circle closed tighter he had a dizzy impression of leering faces, unfriendly eyes.
Some like it hot, some like it cold ...
An eighth-grader came up to watch the fun and called out, "Bet he doesn't know whether to stand or squat when he goes to piss."
Miss Miller, his first-grade teacher, rescued him when the bell rang. Gathering all the children in the first three grades she marched them into the classroom. He sat, isolated from the world by a wall of hurt ego and baffled pride. He tried to hide his shoes under the desk while studying the tennis shoes and low cut laced shoes that other boys wore. His were the only button shoes. He saw a boy in the next row snickering and nudging his neighbor as he pointed to Billy's shoes.
When he left the building after school his third-grade friends were waiting for him. He tried to ignore them and walk with dignity across the dusty playground. His uneaten lunch in the new tin lunchbox and his book bag felt heavy. He was tired and wanted to cry.
Some fourth-graders had joined the group. Led by a boy named Hank they gathered around, escorting him convoy fashion as he started down the hill toward home.
"Let's take the little boy home to his mommy."
"No, Hank, it's a little girl. Look at her shoes."
"He's got no religion," said Hank. "Come on, fellas, Let's show him how to pray." They were pressing closer now running to keep up with him.
Billy was gripped by sheer terror as hands struck him in the back, pushing him off balance. Lunchbox and books rolled away from him as he fell. Clawing wildly at the mass of faces he dimly felt a blow to his face, tasted blood running from his nose over his lip. Abandoning books and lunch pail he scrambled to his feet and ran with all his might.
Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold ...
Bill was standing there clenching his fists when the secretary came up and spoke to him. She had to speak twice before he realized she was there.
"Mr. Helmer," she repeated sharply.
"I shouldn't have run." He stood staring at her.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Those damn button shoes," he said. "But it wasn't so bad after I had a fight with Hank."
"I'm afraid I don't understand. Did some of the youngsters get into a fight already?"
"Uhm ... No. Good morning, Mrs. Stepanovic." He stifled an impulse to feel and be reassured there was no blood on his shirt. "I guess I was thinking about something else."
"Oh, is that it? Anyway, I'm glad that you are here. First, you should call Captain Murphy. He has already phoned twice, something important. Then ..."
"Just a minute, Maria. When I have done that, I'm going over to the cafe for breakfast no matter what happens. I'll be back by eight o'clock if anybody wants me."
In the little cafe, Chez Maurice, the day was getting off to a leisurely start. There were no customers to disturb the two dogs sleeping by the corner stove and the cat curled up on one of the tables. Maurice was washing bottles behind the bar.
"Bonjour, monsieur le directeur. Comment allez-vous?" he offered his wrist.
"Bonjour, Maurice. Bien, merci." He shook the wet wrist; then took his habitual table in the corner by the stove. Th e dogs stirred uneasily. The cat stretched, arched her back and jumped resentfully to the next table. Maurice finished rinsing the bottles, wiped his hands on his apron and came over. Bill ordered un grand café et une tartine.
"Un grand crème et une tartine beurrée pour monsieur le directeur," Maurice called out to the kitchen.
Bill began to feel a little more relaxed. The respect accorded him as monsieur le directeur by the French was surprising and always gratifying. Today it helped to restore his sense of dignity by putting a comfortable partition of time between the present and those button shoes. I wonder, he asked himself, how much I've really learned since then. I'll be damned if I know to this day the best thing to do. Is it better to run away, or should you brawl with a bunch of numbskulls to show them you can't be pushed around? He took a deep breath and stretched. This year will be different.
"Good morning, Mr. Helmer. I've been looking for you." The assistant principal pulled up a chair.
"Morning, Hal. Have a cup of coffee. And lay off the 'Mister' angle. It's Bill to you."
"Don't like formality myself. Garçon," he called, "un café au lait, s'il vous plaît."
"How are things across the street?" Bill buttered a slab of crusty bread.
"So far it looks to me like one hell of a mess."
"Ah. Things are running normally then."
"I'm worried about the enrollment. We're way over the estimates. What if we don't have enough teachers?"
"That worries me a little, too. Did you count heads this morning?"
"Yes, We're only two short. The typing teacher came in this morning. Corson still hasn't showed so I checked with Civilian Personnel. He had orders to report at Westover Field for air transportation ten days ago. No news of him since."
"You're new here, Hal. Sometimes teachers don't show up for weeks. They get lost in some military point of debarkation like soldiers do."
"Just like a casual company in the Army. My infantry training may come in handy here."
"This is no picnic, my friend. Teachers hired in all parts of the forty-eight states are dumped here with a principal who didn't hire them and whom they don't know. Back in the U.S. they were assigned to locations and perhaps did not choose to come to Paris. Many of them would probably prefer Germany. So by some miracle not defined in civil service regulations the school is supposed to run smoothly. And our School Officer can't help much even if he wants to, which he usually doesn't."
"The School Officer," Hal said. "That reminds me. Captain Murphy called and left a message with the secretary. Did you know that they're going to paint all the blackboards today?"
"The hell they are. I'll bet that's Murphy's idea. No wonder I couldn't get him on the phone."
"That was sprung on me about ten minutes ago."
"That's all we need the first day of school. I doubt that regular paint will work on slate boards and anyway I won't tolerate workers in the classrooms during school hours. They can't do that."
"Maybe they can't, but about five Frenchmen with paint buckets and brushes showed up a few minutes ago. A sergeant is in charge of them."
"Over my dead body." Bill gulped the last of his coffee and rose to his feet.
"Maybe they can go out and paint 'Americans Go Home' signs instead. There sure are enough of them around. Why do they want us to leave?"
"The Communists are demanding it. They have a big block of votes in the Assemblée nationale. A lot of people agree with them that we are taking over their country. Our time here could be limited. But we have to stay out of their affairs."
"What do you think of all that? I'm not much into politics."
"Maybe our faculty can play a tiny role in improving relations. We may be forced to leave, but right now I just want to keep intruders from disturbing classes. I'll get the painters out of the building. I don't care what they do so long as it isn't in my school."
"If you have trouble I'll be along in a minute," Hal said.
"Well, here's where we take on the U.S. Army."
"Give them a good fight, boss," Hal called after him.
Bill paid for his breakfast and strode out the door. The Assistant Principal watched him leave. This job, he was thinking, might prove to be even more amusing than he had imagined.
Chapter Two As Bill hurried back across the school yard an army staff car pulled into the parking lot. The driver jumped out and opened the door for his passenger. He took several suitcases from the car, piling them on the sidewalk.
"Hello, Mr. Helmer. Got a teacher for you." He slid under the steering wheel and started the motor.
"Just a minute, Corporal. We may want you to take this baggage to a hotel."
"Sorry, Sir, I got orders to get right back to the Motor Pool. The captain expects some big-shot general and he's all in a sweat. Call in if you want a car later." He drove off in a shower of gravel.
Bill looked at the teacher. She was young, not more than twenty-two or three he guessed, standing tall despite a rumpled appearance of overnight travel. Her wide-set hazel eyes, almost at a level with his own, radiated an expression of good humor.
"Are you the principal?"
"Yes." He loaded the suitcases under his arms. "Let's get your baggage inside. Then we can introduce ourselves properly."
"I'm Irene Young," she said when they were in the office. "I think I'm assigned to your school."
"I'm Bill Helmer." He shook hands with her. "Sorry you had to arrive at the last minute in this madhouse. First days in our school are always wild but it will settle down. Happy to have you with us."
"What do I do now?"
"Have you had breakfast?"
"I ate at the railway station."
"Do you have a place to live?"
"No. I just arrived about an hour ago."
"Want us to get a hotel room for you?" "That would be wonderful."
"I'll have our secretary make a reservation. Your baggage will be sent down to the hotel. Are you game to jump right in and take over a homeroom this morning?"
"If you tell me what to do."
"I'll have my secretary introduce you to Mr. Evans, our Assistant Principal. He can take you on a quick tour of the building and show you where your homeroom will be. When you've done that come back and see me."
"Maria," he asked his secretary, "have you tried to get a substitute for Corson?"
"That won't be necessary." A man stepped out from the inner office. "Corson will play himself in the first act."
"Hi, John. We were beginning to think they had you locked up at Ellis Island. When did you get in?"
"This morning about eight o'clock. Commercial flight. We sat around Westover Field for eight days chewing our nails and waiting for space on a plane. It's good to be back, Bill."
"Here's your schedule, John. Two sections of physics and three of advanced Math but we'll probably tear that all to hell before the day is over. We're way over our estimated enrollment and kids are still pouring in."
"Same old story." Corson studied his schedule. "Let me know if you want me. I'll probably be here late tonight getting the lab set up."
Bill sat down at his desk. "Let's see. What next? Oh, yes. Blackboards. Where is Michael Murphy?" Bill jumped to his feet and started for the door. Just then Irene Young came back into the office.
"Did you see the building?"
"Yes. Do I just go up to my room when the bell rings?"
"No. The day starts with an orientation assembly in the auditorium. All the students and teachers will be there. We'll ... Good Lord! What's that noise?"
"Oh, some girls are cheering out in the hall."
"Just a moment, please." Bill stepped out of the office and was back almost immediately. "Where were we? Oh, yes. Teachers will be introduced and then leave, one at a time with their homerooms."
"I've got the general idea."
"Now, if you will excuse me I have to see the school officer."
A bell rang.
"That's for the assembly. Let's go. I'll come up afterward," he said as they walked into the auditorium, "and help you get started."
After the assembly he introduced Miss Young to her students.
"Seniors, this is Miss Young, your homeroom teacher. She arrived in Paris about an hour ago so she hasn't had much opportunity to study our class schedule. I ask your cooperation this morning in getting our courses lined up as quickly as possible."
Miss Young turned to write a list of senior elective subjects on the blackboard when her stick of chalk broke. As she stooped to pick it up from the floor one of the boys gave out with a loud, sharp whistle. Remembering that the principal was in the room he cut it short and sat looking innocently ahead at the board. There was an uncomfortable silence as the students waited to see what would happen. Bill walked over to the student.
Excerpted from The Big Lie by Richard Johnston Copyright © 2007 by Richard Johnston. Excerpted by permission.
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