She took a deep breath, looked up at the streaks of clouds across a flat autumn sky, and almost lost herself when finally it came out. "I can't stand him," she said, "even in class. I didn't go today, you know. I skipped until eleven. Can you imagine that?—Melinda Drost skipping class?"
She walked farther into the stones, and I followed her. "I can't stand it that he can talk that way about stupid math problems when I know he doesn't even care. He just goes on and on as if doing stupid problems is a really big deal with him, but it isn't. I know."
She was talking about Wilson Friedli, Mr. Math, a man who so rarely came into the teachers' lounge that first semester that even though we shared a free period, I'd barely said a word to him since I came to Arrowhead. When we talked, he asked such obvious questions that I knew he was working hard at trying to be social. "So, Marshall, I saw you with golf clubs yesterday—you golf, do you?" Every word coming out nervously, words as bite-sized as numbers.
His gangly body was little more than a rack for the double-breasted suits he always wore, in the era of beards and beads. He kept his wispy mustache barely visible, and parted what was left of his hair down the center, about ten years before it became popular. He couldn't have weighed more than say, 120, just out of the shower.
"You don't like Friedli," I said, not so much as a question.
"I feel sorry for him," she said. "I really do. Do you realize how much he's given to kids since he's been here? You don't know, Mr. Soerens. He's been here forever, and what's he ever got out of it? Even my dead brother got a yearbook dedicated to him."
"Mel," I said, "I don't get this at all."
"I don't want to ever see him again," she said. "I want to get out of your stupid essay assignment, and I want to quit math, and I want to leave Arrowhead, and I want to die."
"Mel," I said, but that's when it came, when it all poured out, finally, when the tide of her pain couldn't be held back any longer.
"I let him say things to me that he shouldn't say to a student, Mr. Soerens. I let him tell me things I shouldn't have to hear, and it makes me want to puke. He's so lonely. He just says this stuff to me and expects--"
"What kind of stuff?"
She picked a stick off the ground and broke it in pieces. "Must I draw you a picture?"
"It makes you uncomfortable?" I said.
"No," she sneered. "I take all my teachers out here so I can bawl my head off."
I was barely 22, a first-year teacher who drew his daily breath from five periods of teaching English in a basement room where each day I fed my spirit on the lives of my students. Lord knows, alone in the country with Melinda, my brightest student, somebody who talked to me like an adult, I felt no more than a foot away from being another Wilson Friedli, a man who, it seemed, had unbuttoned his loneliness to the only student he respected enough to want her to understand him.
It pains me to say it, but I think I understood Wilson Friedli more than I would have wanted to admit—much more, perhaps, than I understood the predicament of Melinda Drost.
"Did you tell Templeton?" I said, pointing back over my shoulder as if the principal stood just beyond the trees.
"I'm telling you," she said. "I know what Templeton will do."
And so did I.
"He says he loves me," she told me. "He stands there over my desk like the teacher, and when all those contest problems are finished, and the other kids are gone—then he tells me that stuff. And there I sit, beneath him, and he goes on and on."
I was, immediately, immensely uncomfortable, even though she was looking down at a stone, her arms crossed over her chest.
"He lives with his mother—did you know that? I mean, did he ever tell you that? I mean, do you ever talk to him?" she said, looking up, as if I were the guilty one. "You know, she treats him as if he was six years old-she does. He's got to do these jobs. She's got them written on the refrigerator-'take out the garbage'-that kind of stuff."
"He told you that?"
"Every single year there's a math contest, you know, and this is my last one. And every night he wants to take me home."
She was almost crying, I remember. ''I'm scared to death of him," she said.
I didn't know how to handle it. I really didn't. I felt almost nauseous. "Did you tell him?" I said.
She laughed. "How do you say no to a teacher?" she said, her bottom lip in her teeth. "And he touched me," she said. "Last night he touched me. He tried to make out with me."
She blew a moist breath over her glasses and rubbed them with a balled Kleenex she'd pulled from her pocket. "It's my fault, I think. If I wasn't there, there wouldn't be a problem," she said. "He's not a bad man, Mr. Soerens, but it's just that I can't be around him."
I wanted to touch her myself right then, I wanted to comfort her in my arms.
"You think I should just quit the whole deal?" she said.
I don't know why I said what I did. I really don't. It was so much easier, I think, just to keep it quiet, to keep the lid on. I suppose I was thinking the same way she was, that there was more to lose all the way around if the truth were known. I was no Friedli, but maybe I even wanted to protect myself--I don't know.
"What should I do?" she said.
"Don't tell Templeton," I told her. "Just be sure that tonight he can't get you alone. Leave early," I said. "Do something."
"I can't," she said.
"Try," I said. "Just don't put yourself in any kind of position where it might happen again. Stay away from him."
I suppose I assumed that the fear across her face, in the way her lips tightened and her eyes narrowed—I suppose I thought that was only natural. What did I know, really?
When we walked back to school, we walked through an uneven cadence of grunts, three or four guys in dirty practice jerseys lowering their shoulders and butting the blocking sled around the field, the coach astride the machine in front of them, yelling derisively. All the way back, I had Melinda on one side, almost silent, and the football team grunting on the other.
Tomorrow: Things fall apart.