When I drove my battered green Toyota into a parking space marked SUBSTITUTE TEACHER, the woman getting out of the next car raised her eyebrows. It was probably my black jacket with sequins on the lapel. Could’ve been my red tie with the yellow shooting stars. Maybe the white cockatiel perched on my shoulder.
I felt the woman’s eyes on me as I turned off the ignition. My car shuddered as the engine shut down. I leaned over to the passenger seat and pawed through the mess of papers, crinkling the fast-food wrappers as I threw them on the floorboard. Ah. There it is. I grabbed that day’s teaching assignment, sat up, and opened the car door. As I climbed out, my bird, Lisa, dug her claws into my shoulder.
I smiled at the woman who was still standing there and said, “Good morning.”
Guess she didn’t hear me.
As I walked toward the school building, I took Lisa off my shoulder and slid her into the secret pouch of my jacket. My jacket has a secret pouch because it’s the same outfit I wear onstage when I do magic. That’s my real job: magic. Substitute teaching just pays the bills until I make it as a magician. Well, it pays most of the bills anyway.
See, the real dough for magicians is in Las Vegas. David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Siegfried and Roy in their day. Guys with their own theaters built for them. That’s where I’m headed. I’ve already designed the tricks that’ll get me there, and as soon as I have enough money to build them, I’ll get a Vegas gig. Maybe just a small one to start. Hey, I’ll even work in one of those casinos with a red-and-yellow sign that says 99¢ SHRIMP COCKTAIL. Whatever it takes to get in the game.
In the distance, a class bell rang. Ooops. As I picked up my pace, Lisa shifted around in her pocket.
When I neared the redbrick building, I heard the slamming of two car doors. Glancing over at the street, which was maybe fifty yards away, I saw two men dressed in white shirts and black ties, walking away from a parked gray car. Although they weren’t looking at me, it felt like they had me in their sights. Something dangled from one of their shirt pockets. Too far away to tell what it was.
I smiled at them. They looked down at the sidewalk, like they didn’t see me.
I hurried up the steps to the school building, opened the door, and hustled down the empty hallway of Walter Reade Junior High. The only sound was the slapping of my leather soles. Breathing heavily, I stopped at the administration office, then looked behind me down the hall. No sign of those men from the street.
I opened the office door and went inside. Behind a long counter, three people were standing in a cluster, holding Styrofoam coffee cups and chattering away. A horse-jawed man glanced my way. His eyes widened as he took in my outfit. He tapped a short woman on the shoulder, who nudged a heavyset matron with gray hair pulled into a tight bun. The volume of their conversation dropped, and they gave me those quick glances that you get after someone whispers, “Wait a couple of seconds, then sneak a peek over your shoulder.”
The bun-haired matron broke from the huddle and strode my way. She stopped about a foot behind the counter. “May I help you?”
“I’m Harvey Kendall. Subbing eighth-grade English for”—I pulled the coffee-stained assignment sheet out of my jacket—“Mrs. Duggan.”
The woman stepped a little closer to the counter. She picked up a clipboard with several pages clamped to it, lifted the half-glasses that were dangling on a silver chain around her neck and set them on the end of her nose. After flipping through a few pages, she looked up. “You’re late, Mr. Kendall.”
I smiled at her. Truth is, I usually get to class a little late. I think it’s better to come in after the kids are already sitting down. That, and the fact that I can’t seem to estimate time very well.
The matron placed the clipboard on the counter. “Room two eleven. Second floor.”
I spun around and started off.
She called after me. “Mr. Kendall?”
I turned back.
“Do you think that’s appropriate clothing for a teacher?”
I turned my palms up. “It’ll have to do. My chicken suit is at the cleaners.”
* * *
I hurried out of the office, climbed the stairs to the second floor, and looked at the numbers painted on the doors. There. Two eleven.
Through the closed door, I heard kids talking in the classroom. I looked at my reflection in the door’s glass panel and tried to poke down the wildest strands of my curly black hair. Didn’t really help. No matter what I do, my hair always looks like the springs of an exploded mattress.
I straightened up, smoothed my coat, and yanked the door open. That shut up the kids. As I walked to the teacher’s desk, their eyes followed me. I didn’t need much peripheral vision to see a few mouths open.
I turned to face them and said, “Good morning!”
A few of them squinted at me. A couple were stifling grins.
I grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote MR. KENDALL on the blackboard. When I finished, I turned around and dusted my hands, so they could see they were empty, and said, “Everybody needs to behave in my classroom. If not, I’ll know about it, even if I’m not looking.”
In the back, a freckled boy leaned over to whisper something to a blond girl in the next row. He saw me looking at him and straightened up.
I said, “How do I know what’s going on behind my back? A little birdie tells me.” I whisked a red silk scarf out of my breast pocket and waved it up and down, like I was on a ship about to pull out of the harbor. While the kids’ eyes were on the handkerchief, I sneaked my other hand into the coat, grabbed Lisa around her wings, and brought her up behind the scarf. When I let go of her, she flapped her wings and came out of my hands like she was materializing right there.
A couple of kids started clapping. Then everybody did. One boy stuck the tips of his pinkies in his mouth and whistled.
I let Lisa step off my hand and onto my shoulder. She sidestepped toward my neck, then bit my earlobe just like I trained her. I looked surprised and said, “Ow!”
The kids laughed, then sat back in their seats.
I clapped my hands. “So. I understand you’re reading Huck Finn. Who wants to tell me?—”
The classroom door flung open. The heavyset schoolmarm from the administration office hustled in so fast that the glasses around her neck bounced against her large chest. She stopped a few feet away from me, panting, and looked at the bird on my shoulder. The bird looked at her. The class sat up straight.
The woman curled her lip. “Mr. Kendall?”
Her face was beaded with perspiration. “Could you step outside for a moment?”
“What’s the problem?”
She took a crumpled Kleenex from her skirt pocket and dabbed her forehead. “It’s a private matter.”
Lisa cocked her head, like she was wondering, What’s up with the old lady?
A boy in the back said, “Let him stay.”
A girl said, “Yeah.”
The woman glared at the room, swiveling her head like she was fanning the area with a machine gun. The kids looked down at their desks. The only sound was the squeak of a student’s chair.
The woman said, “Please step into the hall.”
I whispered, “I only dress like this on the first day. It’s just to put the kids at ease.”
I looked at the kids and shrugged. Most of their eyebrows were raised, like they were saying Awwww. I walked toward the door, rubbing the bird’s chest with my index finger, as the woman told the class, “Keep quiet and study on your own. Another teacher will be here shortly.”
Just outside the door, I saw the two white-shirted men from the street. One of them started toward me.
Now I could see what was dangling from his shirt pocket.
A leather holder with a gold badge.
Copyright © 2014 by Don Passman