Bottles strewn in the backyard on their sides. Clustered on tables. Edged into wood crooks beneath the benches. Caps popped at odd angles and scattered like seeds—workerwomen hustled to clean up in the morning but not before they saw the scene from the house.
It’s such a mess Maria said to her husband. Is it always like this?
The workers only just got here.
So did I. I still keep it clean.
Please. You’re a woman.
What’s that supposed to mean?
John Cass Jr. (heir to Cass Vineyards) stood taller than the window. His sharp chin and cheekbones in the morning glow like the relief on a penny.
I don’t mean to insult you. These men just uprooted their families. Watch their women.
A halfdozen tanskinned women collected bottles in the fronts of their dresses. Their young children stood shirtless near the entrances to shanties that would serve as their homes until the end of the picking season. Another group of women were out weeding the vegetable garden at the meeting of the woods in the south and the hills on the west property line.
What an idiotic thing to say to your wife.
You’re right John said. I have to get to the office.
Have a good first day of school Mrs. Cass.
The name would never be her own. She still disliked the way it sounded—sibilant—knifelike. She drove out along the dirt driveway to the farthest reaches of the vineyard. The workers were there picking from the outermost row of trellises. They did not raise their eyes to the departing car but Maria still flicked them a parting wave.
On the drive she noticed the mark reflected in the rearview mirror. A red blotch appeared on her right cheek. It felt scaly under her fingers but did not hurt. With all the traveling during the previous weeks first up to Mackinac for her late summer wedding then overseas into Tuscany her blood must have thinned and caused this blemish to appear on her face. The feeling of it like reptileskin unsettled her so much that when she arrived at the country school where she had started teaching the previous year as substitute teacher she forgot her lesson plans in the passenger seat. Her first day with her own class. She did not realize about the lesson plans until she had sat down at her desk and heard the first bell. She couldn’t get them now. But she had revised them the night before and they were still fresh in her memory. The students never remembered anything after summer anyway. They had the memories of goldfish.
Before the second bell she wrote her new name large in the center of the blackboard just as she had every morning while working as a substitute. The new Mrs. Cass taught Advanced Placement English at a country school south of St. Joseph where she had grown up. She had thought that down here there lived only farmers and hayseeds but of course she was wrong. She knew that now. She had gotten to know the class the year before and they were small but bright. Only a handful of students took the initiative to enroll in the Advanced Placement class. None of them fit the country stereotype.
By the second bell all of her class had arrived but George the son of a handsome judge in St. Joseph. She had been warned about him. He was late so frequently that he would have been expelled had the teachers continued to mark him tardy. Less than five minutes later he arrived with his rusty hair in tousles and slouched into his desk near the back. Maria planned a leisurely wrapup of the book they had read over the summer. Of Mice and Men. She remembered loving the book in school but when she reread it on her honeymoon she found it a little sentimental.
Some of you might remember me she said. I have a new name. No more Miss Klug. Now I’ll be Mrs. Cass.
The girls congratulated her. The boys looked dumbly ahead.
Do you guys remember Of Mice and Men? She took on her teacher’s voice which she hoped was chummier and more accessible than her normal voice. She drew a chart on the board as she had planned the night before. Characters. Events. Themes. She had also wanted to solicit a brief plot summary but when she turned to face the class even the light pushing its way through the partially drawn blinds felt exhausted.
Let’s start with characters she said. Who are the main characters in the book?
She allowed silence to press the room. She had learned to wait. Finally one girl Hanna spoke up. Lennie she said.
LENNIE Maria repeated writing his name in the characters column. Hanna earned good grades but couldn’t be relied on to speak on thematic questions. Who is Lennie?
Again the students hesitated to answer. George scratched the dull end of his pencil into the corner of his desk.
Stop that George. I’m sure you’re all tired after summer but you’ve got to remember something about this book.
George sighed and sat back in his chair. He looked at the other students looking down at their desks. He said Lennie dies.
All right jumping straight to the end Maria said. Can you tell us how he meets his end?
That’s kind of the whole book.
Who kills Lennie?
Hanna raised her hand. George.
Maria wrote GEORGE in the characters column and at the bottom of the events column GEORGE KILLS LENNIE.
But Curley and the others kind of kill Lennie too George said.
You’re not just saying that because you share a name Maria asked? But nobody laughed. It was too early for jokes.
He didn’t do it because he wanted to.
You’re right. Does anybody else have anything to say about that?
Maria glanced at the clock. It had hardly been five minutes. She felt antsy in her legs so when no one answered she scooted over to the theme column and looked between the board and her class expectantly.
She asked any themes? Can anybody tell me about Lennie? How about—Lennie’s heart is good but his mind is weak. He’s tragic right?
He loves soft things Hanna said. Like rabbits.
Rabbits. Excellent. Can somebody besides George or Hanna tell me something about the rabbits?
Another girl Elena who lived beside a landfill on the fringe of town said Lennie has a dream of rabbits he really loves.
He doesn’t exactly dream about rabbits George said.
Yes he does Elena insisted. They’re going to have rabbits in their field.
He doesn’t dream about it. He just wants it.
Daydream maybe Maria said. She wrote DREAM OF RABBITS in the theme column.
Miss Klug I’m a little confused George said. That’s not a theme?
Where would you like me to put it?
Themes are like power and oppression. Not dream of rabbits.
Maria wrote POWER and OPPRESSION beneath DREAM OF RABBITS.
But dream of rabbits isn’t a theme.
Tell me George how would you define theme?
Not dream of rabbits he said. Maybe detritus if Elena wrote a book.
His classmates laughed. Maria stepped back into the board and immediately thought of the chalk line that would cross the back of her shirt. She brushed her back off with both of her hands. I don’t think so she said. It’s clear to me that none of you remember this book well enough to discuss it. I took out the movie. Final questions?
She turned off the lights. As long as she fumbled with the tape the TV cast a blue blanket over the room. Outside the window in the fields children shouted and played. Were they already at recess? Finally she smudged the play button and the plaintive sound of a single fiddle broke the silence.
At her desk Maria put her face in her hands her cheek stinging when touched. She traced her finger over the mark. It seemed to have risen and she could feel her pulse through the skin. She rose and walked across the classroom with her hand covering her cheek. In the bathroom her face looked somehow different not just for the painful mark that had in fact risen like a tight knot. Her skin looked grey and her eyes puffy—like she had been crying for a long time. Her class would think the same. She couldn’t have that. She splashed some water over her face and tried to scrub the little red mark from her cheek.
For the rest of the class period she sat staring at her teacher’s desk until the first bell rang and the students left one by one. Then she called for George. Stay a while she said (nonchalantly she hoped). He drifted toward her desk with his head down. Maria allowed him to speak first. She had learned to wait.
I’m sorry for what I said about Elena. I didn’t even think about it. He tried to smile a doggy smile before dropping his eyes to the floor.
You shouldn’t apologize to me. You should talk to your classmate.
She knows I was joking.
Even so Maria said. I will have to punish you. Detention today. I’ve already filled out the slip. Take it to the office.
On the first day of school?
This isn’t a negotiation.
I can’t stay today. I have—have somethingafterschool. You can call my parents.
You can be sure the office will do just that. I’ll see you this afternoon.
George stared at the pinkslip in his hand. He ducked out seconds before the bell. Surely late for his next class.
Maria gathered herself and pushed through the rest of her lessons. After Advanced Placement she had a free period and then she taught three lowerlevel classes. Easy and exhausting like washing dishes. She relished teaching spelling and vocabulary subject verb and tense usage. The students performed their exercises in an industrious sort of silence. Unlike many of her peers she preferred this kind of class. The clean kind the mathematical. Straightforward and literal.
By the end of the day she had a stack of exercises to grade while she waited for George’s detention. Instead she received a call from the secretary in the office. Her voice was small on the phone. A small voice with careful enunciation like she was the kind to allow an insulting student to go unpunished.
He has a family emergency today.
Are you sure? Did you speak to his parents directly?
They say that they need him at home.
I’m sorry but—you understand I’m a bit shocked. Do they know what he said?
The principal spoke to them.
He demeaned his classmate for her economic station.
They are fully aware of the situation.
It’s unbelievable. You just don’t care.
We’ll take care of it. You don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Maria hung up the phone and stuffed the stack of papers into her briefcase and went out to her car. A lowlying tumble of clouds had blown in from the Lake and smothered the darkened countryside. When she pulled into her driveway the workers had labored into the far reaches of the vineyard. She parked inside the garage and left her purse on top of the kitchen counter. From the far side of the field the workers were returning to their shanties behind the house their faces painted red in fugitive slats of light. They dragged their feet over the grass twentyfive or thirty of them carrying their gloves beneath their arms and wiping their faces with bandanas. As they approached the small box homes built in the dirt with cinderblocks roofed in aluminum carpeted by earth they broke into groups of three or four. Maria had entered the shanties in spring when most of the families returned south to find work in the offseason. She had choked on the musty air and while coughing her hands on her knees she caught sight of sudden slivers of rainbow. Projected from the thin plexiglass windows they hid in corners beneath rusty bedframes between cracks in the cinderblocks. The single Mexican woman who lived there yearlong wore a burlap skirt pinned at the back and a sunfaded flannel folded up to her elbows. She spoke inglés solo un poco but laughed at Maria coughing in the doorway. Strong smell the woman enunciated.
Maria cooked herself macaroni boxing the leftovers for John—whenever he decided to return that night. She uncorked a bottle of Cass Vineyards from last year’s harvest and drank two glasses before her mind settled down. The workers gathered outside at the picnic tables with bottles of beer. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the wind beat their sandy Spanish voices against the window. Maria wandered the house. Her own house. She admired the marble tabletops the chandeliers. It was a modernized old farmhouse and it had a certain delicate smell—freshcut timber and finery.
When she returned to the kitchen she discovered John seated at the kitchen table his unwrinkled white shirt tucked into jeans.
You’re home Maria cried!
Expense reports today he said. I’m no good at that.
And you never will be without practice.
Did you make dinner?
There’s tupperware in the fridge.
She placed her wineglass beside the sink microwaving the tupperware for thirty seconds. While she reheated his dinner she faced her marked cheek away from him. She smiled with half her face and put the plate down in front of him. Pellets of rain tapped against the window. What remained of the sun disappeared behind rainclouds.
Will they stay outside drinking through the storm Maria asked?
Can I have a spoon?
He did not look up from his plate. She set a soupspoon on the table beside him.
He spoke between bites. I was thinking about what I said to you this morning he said. I feel kind of bad about it.
Honey that’s all right.
School was good?
She hardly ever saw John eat so she just hummed yes. He shoveled huge spoonfuls into his mouth. His throat jumped when he swallowed. He ate so fast he usually finished before Maria had a chance to look up from her own plate.
I love macaroni he moaned.
That’s why I made it.
You’re such a good wife.
A streak of lightning flashed in the sky. The rain surged. The workers still sat at the tables their wet clothes slicked to their skin.
I can’t believe they’ll sit through this rain Maria said. And make such a mess!
The rain will clean them off.
I don’t care. Watching them out there—silent like barn animals—it’s making me uncomfortable.
So stop watching.
Then in the morning their detritus will be strewn all across the lawn.
Do you want me to talk to them?
I couldn’t have you do that. It keeps pouring harder and harder and they just keep—drinking!
You don’t want me to talk to them?
I will she said. I’ll ask them to move indoors.
Maria was already heading for the garage. The mark on her cheek throbbed as her heart fluttered in anger. She stumbled into her rain boots and snatched an umbrella and stormed through the garage into the backyard where the workers were congregated at the picnic tables. Rain paddled the umbrella. It was still summer she supposed but the storm kicked up a cold wind. Another year passing.
Excuse me she said. Using her teacher voice she addressed the closest worker who wore a widebrimmed hat. My husband and I have been watching you from the window. How long do you mean to stay out here drinking?
A steady stream of water ran down the brim of the man’s hat and splattered onto the tabletop. The two empty bottles in front of him were taking on water. They had already filled to the neck. The man gripped his beer in his lap.
Can you understand me Maria asked?
Well what do you say?
It is never a problem before.
It has always been a problem.
Why do we not tell?
I’m not sure Maria said. It is certainly a problem to drink through a rainstorm and leave your empty bottles out overnight.
The man looked down to his bottle and then lifted it to his lips and tipped it back until it was empty. He put the bottle beside the other two. He rose to leave.
Will you bring these with you?
The man did not look at her but collected the three empty bottles in his hands and headed toward the shanties. Small puddles had collected in the grass and when Maria took her first step back to the garage her boot slipped and she had to drop her umbrella to keep balance. The rain was biting cold and splashed over her face and arms. She thought she heard laughter behind her but when she turned around to glare the workers had already gone inside.
Now John had the newspaper spread out on the kitchen table.
It’s really coming down she said!
Did we just have our first married fight?
I don’t know.
I never want to fight.
Is it because of what I said this morning?
It’s not anything.
He looked at her face. Her cheeks burned because she thought he must then have noticed the mark on her face. He leaned forward his eyes trained on her lips.
You’re the prettiest wife was all he said. Then something in the paper caught his attention and his craned down his neck to scrutinize it.
She went to the bathroom and rubbed herself dry with a towel. They had the softest towels—each of them with their own perfume. She dried her hair and pressed her face into the fabric still summer fresh from the wash. Once she was dry she peered into the mirror. Her cheeks gleamed. She looked beautiful. Without a blemish.
Josh Boardman is from Michigan. He is the author of the chapbook ‘Plantain’ (West Vine Press, 2018) and conducted the Latin translation project ‘We, Romans’ (2015). His stories have appeared in journals such as the Fanzine, New York Tyrant, BULL, Maudlin House, and Catapult. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he is working on his first novel and a collection of stories about his hometown. joshboardman.com