Gray Metal Faces – September 15

The fifth Monday

In his last action as Mr. Jacobs for today, Dan laid his soft leather briefcase on top of the wooden desk in room 121 of Bark Bay High School. Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the westward facing walls, reflected off the clear plastic of a hardcover book (a novel, borrowed from the city library on a friend’s recommendation) and landed on the edge of his bearded left cheek, as he gathered a short stack of papers, along with the novel, and placed them into the briefcase.

“Heading out?” Gracie Hempstead, calculus teacher and one of the few members of the Bark Bay staff younger than Dan, stood unsmiling in the doorway, right hand on the frame, to the room that had been Dan’s de facto office for the last seven years. Dan finished packing his briefcase with slightly greater vigor, grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair, then walked with Gracie into the tiled hallway of the school’s South Wing, pulling his jacket onto both sleeves (smoothly negotiating the exchange of the briefcase between his hands) within a dozen steps.

Dan noticed Gracie’s gait was noticeably less energetic, and when he looked over at her decided her body language seemed deliberately subdued, as if she were challenging him to notice. “Everything OK?”

She pointed to the glass doors, now twenty feet in front of them. Her steely gaze commanding Dan to not speak further until they had exited the building.

Gracie began walking faster as soon as they passed the glass doors into the warm afternoon air, but her movements were fueled not with her typical sprightful exuberance, but a much darker, anxious energy. “Yolana says she wants to move. Says she can’t find work, now that the summer job at the motel’s done.” They had reached her yellow hatchback; her hand jabbed into a jacket pocket, then another, finally pulling out a set of keys.

Dan’s car was three spaces away to the right; he walked over to the passenger side of the hatchback, placed a hand on the roof. “She’s from where, Dallas?”

Gracie scowled, opened her door without looking. “Austin.”

“And she’s been here what, since January?” Gracie had convinced Yolana to move over the holidays; Dan had helped unload her van.

“If she can keep busy, it would get her mind off all the other shit that she has to put up with. But when she’s home alone all day, she can’t help dwelling on how miserable she is.”

“She’s a hairdresser, right?” Bark Bay had only one salon. “Has she tried looking for work in the city?”

Gracie folded her arms across the top of the driver’s doorside, rested her chin on them with a sigh. “That’s an hour away.”

“There’s all kinds of people who commute — “

“Dan, you’re a sweetheart. You mean well, but — if this was just about a job, we could work through this. But with everything else . . . ” She shook her head, let her arms fall to her side.

Dan drummed the rooftop with his fingertips. “Anything I can do?”

The twenty-nine-year-old daughter of two university professors, their middle child and only daughter, sniffed loudly, brushed sandy strands of brown hair from her forehead. And blinked, refusing to cry. “You free for coffee tomorrow? After work?”

“Of cour — ” Dan shut his mouth suddenly, eyes widening as the part of his mind that maintained his personal calendar called his attention. “Sorry, no. First fencing practice.”

“Awesome!” Her voice regained its vigor. “I saw the demo Friday, that was incredible! You really got the students involved.”

“The team did all the work. Me, all I did was talk. How about Wednesday, for coffee?”

“Sounds good.” She opened the car door, looked up at Dan again. “Good luck with the team tomorrow!” Dan stepped away from the car, waved as Gracie started the engine, had his back turned by the time she had backed away from her parking spot.

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