by Elizabeth Primamore
Chalks pulled the ‘72 Corolla into the faculty parking lot. Keys in his pocket, he hurried across the lot, waved to the patrol guard, walked up a few stairs, and went through the double brown doors of Harding in Kearny. He shook in his coat a little. The day was overcast and sleet was starting to fall – unseasonal weather for early November. It felt good to be inside.
Harding was a typical public elementary school: a large brick building with a flag out front, a portrait of George Washington in the foyer. Chalks walked along the main corridor past empty classrooms, headed to his office, which was locked. Not unusual but a pain all the same. Robbie the janitor came around the corner and let him in. Chalks liked Robbie, a young Polish immigrant who was always happy to do a little favor. Chalks made sure he gave as good as he got. During the day sometimes Robbie liked to sneak a beer. Chalks once saw him down a can of Budweiser in the Men’s Room, but said nothing. Live and let live.
He glanced at the big wall clock. Six-thirty a.m. He had time to practice, something he couldn’t do at home because his wife Giovanna hated the sound of playing cards being shuffled. The repetition got on her nerves; it calmed his.
Something in the air made him feel itchy. He rubbed the side of his nose with his index finger, his face scrunching up. When he opened his eyes, they were watery. He was uncomfortable enough to blow his nose and dot his eyes with the same hankie he used to clean the fog from the car windshield. That gave him relief. Shoving the hankie back into his pocket, again he looked at the clock. Ten minutes passed. He was losing time, but first things first.
He took out the math tests he’d graded yesterday and put them aside for later. Then he took out the deck of cards and closed the drawer. He slipped off the elastic band and began shuffling. Jory Blake, the new fifth grade teacher, stuck her head in and said, “Aces high?” She handed Chalks a mug of coffee. He raised it in a salute.
When Jory started in September, he noticed her passing by the office. At first her presence startled him. Usually the other teachers got there minutes before eight o’clock when classes began, but Jory wanted to make a good first impression, arriving early and making a fresh pot of coffee in the teacher’s lounge. Shortly after Jory’s arrival, Chalks started looking forward to that cup of coffee.
“Going to Resorts?” Jory said.
“With this weather, I don’t know.”
“Suppose to clear up for Sunday.”
Chalks said nothing. He just sipped at his coffee the way his father used to do. The cards itched his hand, wanting to be shuffled.
“Where did you go before Atlantic City?”
“They got boats there.”
“You know, gambling boats. On the river. Nice Blackjack tables, too.”
“That your only game?”
Before he could answer, the sound of voices in the hallway broke into their conversation. Chalks thought it was probably Robbie or the cleaning girl, but he decided to play it safe and tucked away the deck of cards. Jory scooted off down the hall. Both good calls: the principal and his secretary said good morning as they passed by.
The cards would have to wait.
Chalks handed back the math tests just before the three o’clock bell. When the students had gathered their books and scuttled out the door, he peeked through the window blinds. Sleet was still falling and had crusted his car, wipers frozen on the windshield. He hoped he had an ice scraper in the trunk. The thermometer mounted on the outside wall was just above freezing. Was the sleet sticking? He looked at the black tar. A little. Start up the engine, let it run, and the ice’ll melt. As always. He’d lived through so many New Jersey winters.
Something about his car didn’t look right. When he was driving on Mill Street this morning, he’d felt a pull to the left. Now he was hoping it wasn’t what he suspected. But it was. The front tire was flat. Luckily, this time the car was parked in the school lot and he wasn’t driving on the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic City like last time. But he had no spare tire and the car would have to be towed.
Chalks went to the main office to call his wife.
Mrs. Stafford, the school secretary, had red hair like Lucille Ball and thin lips painted pink and when she looked up from her typewriter, her small eyes peeped out of huge glasses.
“Sorry about your car, Mr. Parente. By the way, Sears is having a tire sale. My husband replaced the tires on our Impala and now it’s running smoother than ever. Even in bad weather.”
“How long has he owned it?” Chalks’s hand was on the receiver.
“About five years, I think. But I’m not sure. You’d have to ask my husband. He’ll be here in an hour. Can we give you a lift?”
“My wife’ll come get me. We have to go to the gas station.” Chalks didn’t like favors. Favors meant you had to reciprocate.
“How is Mrs. Parente?”
“Getting bigger and bigger.”
“Dial nine for an outside line,” she said, and started tapping away again.
Chalks picked up the receiver. For a second, his own phone number slipped his mind. Then he dialed and waited for Giovanna to answer.
Giovanna was pleasant at first; she only asked him to wait until Charlotte finished her graham crackers and milk. But then she realized he wanted her to pick him up and follow the tow truck to the gas station and then drive him home because he was too cheap to invest in good tires. He couldn’t argue with Giovanna because he knew he was wrong. He liked a bargain, so he bought tires from the junkyard.
As his wife went on and on about his bad habits, Chalks looked out the window. The sleet was turning to snow. Now his wife was sniffling. Soon she’d be crying. Then he thought he heard a gasp, but it was too late – he’d slammed the receiver down.
Mrs. Stafford had on her hat and coat and her pocketbook over her arm. She paused in the doorway as though she were thinking something over, then said: “Don’t be too hard on Mrs. Parente. She’s frightened for you.”
Chalks watched her leave. He felt something he didn’t want to feel – the uneasiness of a man who was either angry at life or afraid of it, but couldn’t admit either one.
The atmosphere in Harding Elementary had changed. No shouting in the hallway. No banging of locker doors. No bells ringing. Chalks walked through the lonely corridors. He was going to be stuck here longer than he expected. Giovanna would take her time.
He stepped out for a moment into the cold. In the parking lot, tire tracks from the Chevrolet were the only marks on the blanket of white. The Corolla looked like a lopsided igloo. Traffic was light. He hoped to see his wife’s car, but there was no sign of the Cadillac. Usually it took twenty minutes from home to work.
He went back inside. He shoved his hands into his coat pockets then took them out. Then he put them back in again and paced. Then he stopped. He was tired. Not of pacing so much but of waiting. Though he actually didn’t mind the wait because he knew he was calmer now than he would be at home.
The later it got, the colder it got. A chill ran through him. He went to the nearest classroom and dragged a heavy brown chair into the corridor and placed it near a radiator. When he sat down and touched the cast iron, it was cold. The heat had been turned off for the day. He wrapped his long, thick scarf around his neck and around his ears and under his nose. Then he did what he’d yearning to do all day. Out of his pocket came Beat the Dealer: the Winning Strategy for Twenty-One. But there wasn’t enough light to read, and he didn’t feel like getting up and turning on the lights.
Chalks leaned back and looked at the portrait of George Washington, the American flag, and down the long dark corridor of empty classrooms. He closed his eyes to nap. But after a few tries, a few shifts in his seat, he found he couldn’t do that, either. The book slipped off his lap and fell to the floor. He didn’t bother picking it up.
The cold and the silence gave him something he only wanted at the Blackjack table: time to think. It made him feel uneasy again, uncertain. He pulled out his wallet and looked at the photograph of Charlotte he always carried with him. The impish smile and the dark eyes came from him, not Giovanna. The girl was only ten years old and doing the school work of a child five years older. That was him, too. He snapped the wallet shut and put it away.
“Call the missus?”
There was no mistaking that gruff voice. It was Robbie, standing there with a large ring of keys. “My pleasure to open the office door.”
“I’ll wait here,” Chalks said. “My wife’ll be here soon.”
Robbie picked the book off the floor and handed it to Chalks. “When you will take this poor fella to this new A.C.? Teach ‘im a trick or two?”
“No tricks to card counting, only hours of practice and study.” He held the book out to Robbie. “Start by reading this.”
Robbie said he would, but Chalks knew he wouldn’t. The janitor shuffled away, book in hand.
The next time he appeared, Robbie was closing the top button of his coat. The cleaning girl was with him – Chalks had once caught them kissing in a broom closet. Robbie took the girl’s hand and turned to Chalks. “When you leave, the door’ll lock.” The two stepped out into the falling snow.
Chalks watched Robbie and the girl fooling around in the storm. Tossing snowballs at each other. Laughing. Sliding down the cracked pavement. And as they turned the corner of Mill, they held hands.
Chalks leaned against the wall and folded his arms across his chest. The day was so long, so long and weary. That terrible feeling of unease returned, the feeling he dreaded most, that brewed inside him, to keep his hurt and frustration where they belonged, buried deep below the surface, out of sight, forbidden.
Outside the wind blew against the windows and doors.
It’s only snow, he thought. Only snow.
What about the car?
He decided to step out and examine the Corolla. Hands jammed into his coat pockets, shoulders hunched, Chalks walked the storm toward his car. Snow was piled on the tops of street lamps and traffic lights. The Corolla was nothing but a big lump in a field of white. Tomorrow there would be talk, snowballs, and a whole lot of digging out. And a whole lot canceled. And happy kids. And if he had his way, he would be at Resorts International where none of this would matter, where not even a blizzard could beat the stacks of chips on the green felt tables.
But there was no dealer to face now. He thought of his wife and figured she wasn’t coming for him. Giovanna wanted him to call a cab, but he couldn’t see spending the money. Maybe she was right. But it was too late now.
And so, calling it a day, Chalks turned around to go back inside.
The door wouldn’t budge. He pressed the handle again. Pushed harder. Nothing. In a sudden burst of energy, he hurled himself against the heavy wood, but only hurt his shoulder. Bent over, he took a few deep breaths, let his hand drop and came up. It was no use. Damn it. That’s right. He forgot. The door would lock behind him.
There was nothing else to do but take a few deep breaths and push himself forward. For the first time in his life really push himself and, like a man resigned to his fate, step into the storm. In the arctic chill, one foot after another, on and on, he went. He made it across the parking lot to the curb and crossed over the main street. Would the gas station still be open? As he trudged along, chin on his chest, he came to a realization. He didn’t care.
Trash cans, broken branches and debris blew down the snowy streets. A dog was howling. Face stinging, Chalks pulled his scarf over his mouth. Snow got into his shoes, freezing his toes, but he kept going. He passed the darkened luncheonette, the convenience store and, as he went by Sal the Barber, Chalks thought he heard something but ignored it. The sound got louder. Was it a police siren? As far as he could see, the roads were empty. He threw his head back to let the snow blow into his face. It was piercing but invigorating.
The falling of the snow was seductive, pressing, inviting him to wander in the white expanse of silence. He thought of his wife and child. They were a part of his life. They thought they owned him, that he was their possession. For a second that feeling of unease flared up, then thankfully disappeared. Chalks heard that sound again, the siren. No, not a siren – there was no surge and ebb. He tried to listen more closely but the snow and the wind dampened the sound. The sound, a kind of blare, happened again. It was a car horn honking. And a voice, a woman’s voice, rose like a vague shout, lost in the vigor of the storm. His wife?
He turned the corner on Mill, too far away from the school to find out.
It seemed to Chalks, wrapped in the storm’s swirl, for the first time in his life he was leaving his mother’s home. Foremost and always. He was taking a risk. And whatever the consequences, he knew he’d come out a winner.
Elizabeth Primamore is an author and playwright. Short stories are published in Sweet Tree Review and The Opiate. Her new book is titled Shady Women: Three Short Plays (Upper Hand Press, 2018). She is a recipient of the Bernard and Shirley Handel Playwriting Award and was a semifinalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.