Lily and Alice

Lily could tell right away, as soon as she entered the faculty bookroom, Alice wanted to talk. Alice was the bookkeeper at Covenant. She was a divorced woman in her early fifties who pulled her auburn hair into a tight bun that revealed a prominent pale forehead. She wore eyeglasses on a silver chain like a woman much older might exhibit. She had on a two-piece black business suit and pumps. She viewed herself as an intellectual, and undervalued by most people. Lily had treated Alice kindly since coming to Covenant and Alice fancied them close friends. Lily liked Alice but could tell she wanted validation. Lily had come for some paper clips and manila folders.

“Good morning, Lily. How was your break? I missed seeing you.”

“Good morning, Alice. Nice to see you, too. Refreshing. I visited some family back in Rook and took some time at the beach. But I’m glad to be back,” Lily said. “How are you?”

“Just great, Lily. In fact, I am reading a new book about hearing from God. I cannot wait to pass it on to you.”

Lily swallowed and searched for a kind word. Anytime she heard people speak of “hearing from God” she got nervous. In Lily’s mind, if you desired to hear from God you opened the Bible.

“I see. I am so encouraged, Alice, that you’re a reader,” Lily said, hoping she did not sound dismissive.

“Did you have a chance to read the Fitzgerald novel I passed along to you?” Lily asked.

“Oh, I am so loving it, Lily. Thank you. I mean, poor Nick Carraway. He is out of his league with Gatsby, isn’t he?” Alice exclaimed.

“It gets better, Alice. Keep going. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book, okay?”

“You bet,” Alice said excitedly, envisioning a time when she and Lily could dialogue about deep issues.

Lily thought she had said enough but Alice had not forgotten.

“Oh Lily, I almost forgot. Did you say you had not read this book about hearing from God?”

“Um, no. I have not read that one,” Lily said.

“Well, you’ll just love it!” Alice exclaimed. “I’ll be sure you get it after I’m done, okay?”

“Yes, of course. Thank you.”

Lily smiled and continued to the bookroom for her supplies.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part forty-nine)

Monday morning’s first light found Lily in her classroom at Covenant. She sat behind her metal desk in a cheap metal swivel chair. The desk was covered with worn paperbacks of Hamlet, Great Expectations, books of poetry, index cards on which she kept notes, Post-its of various colors she had stuck inside books with cross-references, and papers to be graded. Pens and pencils of various colors were in a heavy ceramic coffee cup Mr. Fred Aims bought her as a welcome. On the cup in white letters was stenciled a biblical reference: 2 Cor. 3:6.

Her classroom had one window through which she could see a live oak tree and some of Covenant’s grounds. No other teachers had arrived yet but she had learned that Thomas McDavid arrived early, too. Lily stared at the oak outside. She checked her calendar for the date: March 1. Spring is nearing, she thought, with its attendant rains, richness of upturned soil, life pushing upward.

“Holloa, my young friend! Up early again?”

Lily heard Mr. McDavid’s merry voice and caught the smell of black coffee.

“Good morning, Thomas,” Lily said, smiling. “Yes. How are you?”

“All’s well. We’re looking into some of Caesar’s weaknesses in my classes today.”

“Some other lads, too. Mark Antony and Brutus. Ever heard of’em?” Thomas said, grinning.

“I think I have.”

“Beware those lads from March, right?”

“Something like that, Thomas,” Lily said, laughing.

“Just wanted to check on you, young lady. I’m off to hang out with Julius Caesar and other men closer to my age.”

He sipped from his coffee cup.

“You still on the Mississippi with Pip and Miss Havisham?”

“Well, how about in 19th century England with Pip and Miss Havisham and Denmark with Hamlet?” Lily asked.

“Yes, of course, just like I said.”

“Right, Thomas. Have a good morning, okay?”

Mr. McDavid stepped backwards and looked back up the hallway, then stepped forward again into Lily’s room.

“Ready to tame Covenant’s shrew?” Thomas asked.

“Huh?”

“You will see soon.”

Thomas McDavid departed, leaving only the smell of his black coffee. Suddenly Lily heard the sound of Beth’s heels and the metallic clinking of bracelets.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part forty-one)

“Good morning, Ellen,” Donald said. Turning his right shoulder and hip to Ellen Aims, he hugged her as two friends of many years.

“Good morning, Donald,” Mrs. Aims said.

“And welcome again, Ms. Rood. Nice to see you again,” extending his Jergens-scented right hand.

“Thank you, Donald. Good morning.”

“Will you be returning to Tim’s class? Would you like me to escort you?”

“I’m fine, Donald. I’ll go alone,” Lily said. “But thank you.”

Ellen Aims met some friends in Beulah’s foyer and Donald returned to the front doors to greet other worshipers. Lily turned down the hall towards Tim’s class. Nearing the door, she heard the sounds of coffee cups and small plates–not Styrofoam, but ceramic cups and plates. Lily swallowed, gathered herself, and entered through the door.

“Hello, Lily. Welcome,” Tim said.

“Thank you. Am I late?”

“Not at all. Beth brought some goodies for the class today. Please, come enjoy some.”

Lily suddenly tasted bile on the back of her tongue. Lily pictured Beth’s ravenous fake nails with black polish and her scorched hair, even before she heard the voice.

“Oh hi, Ms. Rood. You came back. Well, I brought treats for our class but you are welcome to some, if you like,” Beth said.

No word of Beth’s cabal at Covenant had penetrated the Sunday school class. Lily feigned a smile towards Beth’s overture but said nothing for now. Lily scanned the room. Where was Nathanael? Or his parents? Or Ruth?

“Everyone, may I have your attention, please?” Beth announced. Again the bile on Lily’s tongue.

“You guys know how much I value our wonderful Sunday school class. My bringing some dishes of breakfast goodies is just to show how much you guys mean to me.”

The clink of Beth’s bracelets, her ruined orange hair. Lily looked for a chair in which to sit.

‘Thank you, Beth, for the breakfast,” Tim said. “I’ve no doubt we appreciated your thoughtfulness.”

Lily felt herself collapse onto a chair. “If we could all wrap up breakfast, we will get started in just a moment,” Tim said.

Members of the class made towards the trash can to throw away their napkins.

“Tim, may I say one more thing?”

“Of course, Beth. Go ahead.”

“If you guys will just clean the outside of the cups and plates, I’ll take care of the rest when I get home after church,” Beth said. “I hope you all enjoyed it.”

Lily tried to swallow but her tongue felt fat in her mouth and tasted of alkaline.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part thirty-nine)

Lily gathered her belongings from her desk—books, notebooks, and Post-its she wrote on throughout the day. The air carried the scent of Jergens from Donald standing nearby. The smell reminded Lily of her grandparents—age, wisdom, discernment. “I’m ready, Donald,” she said.

“I hope it is alright that I showed up unannounced, but what I have to tell you cannot wait.”

“Then I am glad you came,” Lily said. “I guess this means all is not well?”

“Perhaps it should wait until we sit down over coffee,” Donald said.

“I’ll meet you there in 15 minutes then, okay?”

“I’ll be there.”

Lily checked her mailbox in the office on her way out–messages to call parents, rosters with students’ names, dates of faculty meetings, and a coffee mug with a Dickens quote: “Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” Thomas McDavid had purchased it for her. Lily smiled to herself.

Lily’s mind raced en route to the Cup-n-Saucer. Donald was not nosy, so his coming to Covenant, and to Lily’s classroom, augured serious news. When she pulled into the Cup-n-Saucer’s parking lot, she saw Donald’s profile through the café’s window.

“I already ordered you a coffee,” Donald said upon Lily’s entrance, “is that okay?”

“Of course. But why do I think you didn’t come to Covenant today to ask me to coffee?”
“It’s about Beth,” Donald said. “I’m afraid she has stirred things up for you, and for Covenant.”

“What now?” Lily asked.

“She contacted us on the board to say that her father made a mistake in hiring you.”

“A mistake? Her father made a mistake? What does that even mean?” Lily asked.

“She claims that you had students in your classroom after normal school hours, and that…”

“I was teaching them how to write better. Would she have me teach them on the gym floor in front of the bleachers?”

“I understand, Ms. Rood. But there is more. She is claiming that you left your school in Rook prematurely by breaking your contractual obligations,” Donald said. ‘Moral turpitude’ is the phrase she used.”

“The phrase she used where? To whom?” Lily remonstrated.

“She is going behind the scenes, behind your back, if you will, Ms. Rood. She is talking about you–not just at Covenant, but to the school board, and even about town. Some people, because you are not from here, might believe her. That is the way she works.”

“So I am presumed guilty? Am I hearing this correctly? Her father is the one who hired me, for heaven’s sake!”

Donald fell silent and stared at Lily.

“I don’t understand, Donald. I was recruited by her father…by your friend…Fred Aims. And yet his baby daughter is determined to destroy me. Why?”

“How old are you, Ms. Rood?”

“I’m forty. But what kind of question is that? What does that have to do with what we’re discussing?”

“How old do you think Beth is?” Donald asked.

“A few years younger than I am probably. Why? I don’t understand what you’re driving at, Donald. I came here to teach, to find a few friends, to find a church where I could fit in and serve, and yet…” Lily said.

“Do you think Beth might see your move here differently than you do?”

“What if she does? How is that my concern? I’m no threat to her,” Lily said.

“Do you get along with Sarah and Nathanael?”

“I do. Quite well, actually. Why?”

“How about with Ruth?” Donald continued.

“I do, Donald. Why?”

“And what would you say is your standing with the faculty at Covenant since you came on board?”

“It’s solid, I think, Donald. But why will you not tell me what you’re driving at?” Lily pleaded. “You said she claims her father made a ‘mistake’ and that I’m guilty of ‘moral turpitude.’ I need specifics. What mistake did he make? And will anyone show me my moral turpitude? For heaven’s sake, I drink black coffee and read the classics—how much moral turpitude could I commit?”

“Sarah and Ruth Aims moved off after high school. They eventually returned, but only after a lot of water was under the bridge,” Donald said.

“Yes, so I’ve heard. But what does that have to do with me?”

“Beth has been here her whole life. The people know her. For better or worse, she’s part of the soil here. That carries clout with many folks around here. When people move off, even for education, resentment sets in for many locals,” Donald said.

“Okay. I get that. That’s not unusual for small town life. But again, what does that have to do with me? I did not grow up here,” Lily said.

“Exactly. You are not of this soil, at least in some people’s thinking. Beth fears that.”

“You make it sound like the county limit signs mark off people’s worth instead of the state’s geography,” Lily said.

“That is not far from the way some people may see it, Ms. Rood. I’m a farmer; we deal in acres, in boundaries, in rows and furrows.”

“Yes? Go on,” Lily said.

“Beth is a farmer’s daughter.”

“Yes, but so are Sarah and Ruth. So are countless other daughters across the South. What are you saying?”

“Perhaps Beth does not like her acreage being encroached upon, if you will,” Donald said.

“Acreage? That is the way this is seen now? I came to teach, to farm young minds, if you want to use that language. But that is the extent of the agricultural analogy. I am not confrontational by nature; anyone who knows me would tell you that. But I’m being maligned and defamed here, and I don’t deserve it, Donald.”

“Change, shifting of the rows, if you will, is hard, Ms. Rood—especially for some,” Donald said.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part thirty-eight)

Lily bore the mockery as well as she was able. But she knew Michael and other perceptive students would detect the bloodless Beth wounds. Lily’s mind divided: should she forsake Covenant and return to Rook, or continue at Covenant, Beth notwithstanding? Her body mocked her, too. Her hip ached, and her reflection in the trophy case confirmed her skin’s pallor, thinking My frame and face betray me. She wrestled with the desire to be alone and the desire to be encouraged by Thomas McDavid, Donald, or Nathanael. Today, Lily felt an alien at Covenant.

As her teaching day ended, she stared at the top of her desk and at her lectern—notes she had made on Great Expectations and Hamlet written on Post-its. Lily stretched her right hand towards her copy of Hamlet when she heard Donald call her name.

“How about a coffee from the Cup-n-Saucer—my treat?” Donald asked.

“I’m in,” Lily said. Donald vanquished her longing for solitude.

“Is it okay if I stay in your room after school? After all, I’m old enough to be your father?”

“Oh, Donald,” Lily laughed, “thank you for that. I needed to smile.”

“I remember days farming, when Fred Aims and I used to swap stories of demonic angels that ate our corn, peanuts, and soybeans. Our wives would look at us like we were as dumb as fence posts, but Fred and I had to get a laugh amidst the trials of farming. I am not a book person, Ms. Rood, but I’d assume teaching is like that some days…” Donald said.

“I think there’s a special fence post with gray streaks and a bad hip out there with my name on it,” Lily said.

“Come on, Ms. Rood, I think you’ll need to drink your coffee black for what I’m going to share with you today.”

(To be continued)

Lily (Part thirty-seven)

Why Beth? Why do I attract busybodies? To teach, to find a few true friends here, Lily thought, and yet… When Lily exited the counselors’ offices, she caught her reflection again in the glass panes of the wrestling trophy cabinets. She saw streaks of gray in her otherwise brown hair, and her face pale. Trophies behind the glass captured athletes throwing opponents to the mat, gilded shapes of calf muscles and triceps swollen with blood. She felt mocked by the reflection. She now longed to be alone. She thought she would fail at teaching here, believing Beth to have cast suspicion over her character.

“Ms. Rood!” It was Nathanael. “Please let us continue our conversation from earlier, but not here.”

“Which one is that—the cryptic childhood of the Aims sisters, or the libel about me from your aunt?” Lily returned.

“Ms. Rood, please. May we agree that you’re owed some explanations, and an apology?”

“I came to teach here because your grandfather recruited me from Rook. I did not ask for the rest of this!” Lily said.

“Agreed. My grandfather was right to recruit you for Covenant. And no, you certainly did not ask for my aunt to plot against you. This is, I am ashamed to say, her custom,” Nathanael said.

 

“Custom—that’s what you call it. Why must she meddle in my life? What have I done to encourage her?” Lily asked.

“Nothing, Ms. Rood. That’s what she hates.”

“I don’t understand. I moved from Rook to teach at Covenant. I do my best here, just as I did there. I think my students, and most of my peers, agree I do a good job. Yet your aunt is determined to destroy me. Why? I cannot even escape her at church. She nests there, too,” Lily said.

“There are some people that cannot leave others alone, especially those by whom they feel threatened.”

“Threatened! I don’t want be a counselor, a headmistress, or anything but a teacher,” Lily said.

“She hates that, Ms. Rood. I know that hate is a strong word, but my Aunt Beth finds her joy only when working against what my grandfather wanted.”

“Which was?”

“In short, a redeemed place where learning is modeled and passed on to the next generation,” Nathanael said.

“Holloa! What do we have here—our new leader with our literature aficionado?” Thomas McDavid had stepped into the hall from his classroom, and seen Lily and Nathanael.

“Just speaking with Ms. Rood, Thomas. Is all well?” Nathanael asked.

Amicorum omnia communia,” Mr. McDavid said. “And we three are friends, yes?”

Lily smiled at Mr. McDavid. “Yes, Thomas,” Nathanael said, “of course.”

Mr. McDavid returned to his classroom, and Nathanael looked again at Lily. “Might we get together after this day ends?” Nathanael asked.

“I just want to be alone,” Lily said. “I don’t think I would be good company. Plus, I have several classes still to teach today. I’m just hoping to be able to focus on my students and point them to what we’ve been going through this year.”

“I’ve no doubt you will lead them well, Ms. Rood. My grandfather was a wise man, and he brought you here for a reason. He saw something in you.”

“Some days that something feels like a target,” Lily said.

(To be continued)

Lily (Part thirty-four)

The grayness of misty morning continued to lift as Lily drove to her faculty spot in Covenant’s parking lot. Nathanael pulled into the spot painted: HEADMASTER.

Mane bonum, Miss Rood,” Thomas McDavid said, his optimism and energy unabated. He gripped his stained coffee cup in his left hand.

“Good morning, Thomas,” Lily said. “I have just come from the Cup-n-Saucer. Looks like I am keeping the same hours as you and Donald.”

“Our gain, then, Miss Rood, our gain,” Mr. McDavid said. “I trust your early hours were profitable at the diner?”

“I hope so, Thomas. I am learning the weight of history. Have you ever thought that maybe we never overcome our childhoods?” Lily asked.

Historiae numquam moritur,” Mr. McDavid said. “History never dies, is that what you mean?”

“I think so,” Lily said. “The same wisdom is illustrated in literature, too, so I am disappointed in myself. After all, I am teaching Great Expectations and Hamlet right now. Pip has grand plans…great expectations…because he’s ashamed of his roots. He pursues this world’s allures, and they devour him. He is naïve to the depth of human depravity. And people he thought he understood, he didn’t. Those appearing malevolent often weren’t. And those appearing innocent were wicked. I’m just embarrassed at my own naiveté. I see myself in Pip–being educated in this world’s ways. Am I making sense, Thomas?”

“Indeed, my young friend. Literature is your field. You learn through and from stories. We all do. And we all have our stories, don’t we, Miss Rood? You have them, I have them, and Covenant, too,” Mr. McDavid said.

“I came here at Mr. Aims’ request. I thought I understood my future. Like Pip, I had great expectations…but I am involved in something I don’t fully understand. Now I question if I’m even qualified to teach. There is so much I am still learning,” Lily said.

“Life humbles the wise, Miss Rood. My dear friend, Fred Aims, would tell you that, too. Life humbles the wise but hardens the foolish,” Thomas McDavid said. “Do you believe that?”

“I do,” Lily said. “The Bible teaches that consistently. One’s teachability is inseparable from wisdom, if that makes sense to you.”

“I understand why we’ve become friends, Miss Rood. Don’t you feel the same?” Mr. McDavid asked.

“I do, Thomas. Thank you for being my friend here,” Lily said.

 
“Fred Aims was my friend of many years, Miss Rood. He was a good judge of character. He was wise to bring you into Covenant. Be patient. Teach Great Expectations and Hamlet the best that you can, and just be faithful,” Mr. McDavid said. “After all, I know your students are eager to see if Pip gets Jim off the Mississippi River.”

“Thomas, that’s Huckleberry F___…” Lily said.

Looking up, she saw Thomas McDavid’s eyes smiling at her, as he sipped his coffee.

“Time for us to get to our respective classes, Miss Rood,” he said.

(To be continued)