“Empty Desks” by Kevin Helock

Issue 22 / Summer 2020

Hey kiddo,

I’m not going to talk about what happened. I figure you’ve got enough of that everywhere else what with all the cameras staking out the building in the morning, the counselors they’ve got in the corners of all the rooms where your friends used to be. Knowing your mom like I do, I’d say she don’t let you have a break either. I can see her scuttling out the door and across that little yard the moment that bus turns the corner, smothering you in a hug before your feet even hit the curb. I’ll bet that’s too much, even if all the other kids get it, and I know the rest of the day must be like she ain’t let go, like you’re just slowly sinking into that sweater, that apple and cinnamon perfume she don’t know how to stop putting on.

She calls me just yesterday, your mom. Wants to know if I think you’re ok. I say I reckon you’re not, but go on tell me what’s up anyway. So she says you’re just sitting in the living room not talking to anyone, and isn’t it odd, that you’re not talking. So I say what, you’re not doing anything? How long you been there? And she says well you’ve been there a whole half hour, just sitting there watching Batman cartoons, and shouldn’t she try to say something. Whole half hour. Not normal, she says. I know she don’t let you be normal.

But there I go, and I said I wouldn’t talk about it. I just figured maybe you need to hear something good right now. Not a hug, not a lecture about how strong you are or have been or will be. Just a little story about something good, something that’s got nothing to do with you for once. I reckon you’d like to know.

So you know I work at Chloe’s, just a little job to keep me on my feet. Busing tables, keeping the floor clean, that kind of thing. Anyway, I know you and your mom came in there for lunch the other day, that Saturday before. Maybe you remember your waitress, the one with the air-cast on her foot? Well her name’s Susan, and she’s real nice. Some people you know, they smile all day at work but then go home and frown the rest of the evening, like they’re a different person. Susan though, she might be different when she’s not in her uniform, but she don’t frown. She keeps on smiling, but her smile gets all twisty at the corners and she starts showing those teeth and half her gums. You’d like her. If she came over she wouldn’t ask if you were ok. She’d just challenge you to a round of Mariokart, and she’d bring her own controller.

Anyway, Susan and I started seeing each other recently. We’d hang out in the back booth by that miniature jukebox on the wall when the place was empty, just shooting the breeze about this and that. Food, games, the election, that kind of thing. I started calling her Suzie, and she’d tell me to knock it off, only I could tell she didn’t mean it, cause she’d be smiling with gums. That’s how I knew we had it good. That, and she started wearing her hair up instead of in a ponytail.

She and I, we ain’t done much yet. But here and there we’ve found some time to spend together, play some games, drive around a bit, just casual stuff. We even got pulled over the other night, out on the other side of that old covered bridge they keep petitioning to keep around. I thought I must’ve been speeding, but the officer said I just had a light out. Susan, she broke out laughing after we pulled away. Couldn’t get enough of it. She’d never been pulled over before, she said. I don’t think your mom would believe that, that there’s people in this world that’ve never been pulled over before.

So we’re a couple miles down the road and Susan cracks a joke, and I must be a little slow responding cause suddenly she’s pawing at my shoulder and asking me what’s wrong. I can’t think what to say, so I just tell her the truth, that I’m kinda shook about getting pulled over. And then I’m telling her all about doctors and pills and anxiety. There’s this long pause and I just say right then I really thought it’d be the worst thing in the world to get a ticket for speeding.

After the news vans started showing up and politicians started throwing us around on TV from behind podiums in DC, Chloe’s got real busy and Susan and I had to start picking up extra shifts to meet demand. Didn’t have so much time out of work anymore, and I haven’t seen that booth by the jukebox free since. Started taking a few extra pills here and there to keep it all straight.

Well here I think Susan’s forgotten about all that I said, about the anxiety. Until a few days ago she asks me if I can still drink or if I’m not supposed to cause of the pills. Well, I’m not supposed to cause of the pills, but I tell her I’m good as long as it’s not too much. So she says she’ll give me an hour after the shift on Sunday—that one’s over early, you see—and then she’s going to pick me up. So yesterday’s Sunday and I go home and get showered and talk to your mom on the phone about you watching Batman cartoons and not saying anything, and pretty soon Susan’s over and we’re riding in her little Prius toward the other side of town.

We’re going past the school then. I don’t know why she goes that way, seeing as you could just as easily go around over the bridge and keep your distance, but maybe all the reporters been wearing her down, cause she just drives real slow past the front of the school, and I’m thinking to myself it looks odd, with new windows and no police tape, when she stops. Just lets her foot all the way down on the brake right in the middle of the road. She’s looking right past me all empty around the eyes, and I start worrying another car’s going to come along, so I put my hand on her arm and say, everything alright, Suzie?

It takes her a moment to meet my eyes then, and when she does she smiles just a little, all lips. Sure she’s fine, she says. It’s just, where’d they put the empty desks? I really don’t know what to say to that, so I just wait until she blinks a few times and starts moving again.

It’s getting on in the afternoon when she stops out on the far end of Colt’s Park back between the baseball field and the soybeans, and then she’s getting out a blanket and a cooler and hands them to me. She fishes a bottle of Welsh’s grape juice out of a cardboard box in the trunk and says it’s really wine, she drank all the grape juice.

We set up on the edge of the soybeans and eat grilled BLTs, sip wine out of Dixie cups. And pretty soon the sky’s getting all yellow and orange and red, and when it gets purple I try to get up, but Susan stops me with a hand on my shoulder and says no, we’re going to stay for the stars. So I settle back down and pour us some more wine to keep us warm, cause the wind’s picking up just a bit and rattling in all those dried out soybeans behind us. Susan rolls us up in the picnic blanket, and then she’s draped over my body, her head on my collarbone.

I can tell by her breathing that she’s out long before the stars are, but I decide to let her go on sleeping, seeing as how hard we’ve had it at Chloe’s lately. I feel her breath cool on my throat, and I keep very still, my eyes glancing back and forth between her and that lovely blue-black sky as all those little bits of light start breaking it up into tiny shards like pieces of glass. The wind settles low in the soybeans like crunching underfoot. Like tiptoeing on candy-wrappers, library books, Styrofoam slushie cups.

I can tell Susan’s tired, cause she hardly moves during the night, her body close and warm under the blanket. She feels like Kitchkie, my old husky, after I started letting her sleep with me to keep down the arthritis. Not sure you’d remember Kitchkie. You were still so young back then. But who am I kidding? That was hardly yesterday.

Listen kiddo, I’m sorry about this. This letter, I mean. I set my mind to do a thing and then I get all lost in it, treading back and forth on the sides of the path and all through the flowerbeds. But you see what I’m trying to say here? That there’s, I dunno, hope I guess. People like to say I’m hopeless, and sometimes I think they’ve got a point. But last night by the soybeans. Maybe I wouldn’t know it if it stood in front of me, but it sure felt like hope. I dunno if I can make you understand that, or if it would mean anything to you if I did. Maybe someday this will make sense.

I watched the stars the whole night. Susan woke with the sun on her face and drove me back home. I haven’t said a word all morning. Just sat down to write you this. I’m sorry, kiddo. It’s all I’ve got right now.

 

Your Uncle Dean

 

 

Kevin Helock is a recent graduate of Susquehanna University’s Creative Writing and Secondary Education programs and is currently looking for a position as a high school English teacher. His work has previously appeared in The Best Teen Writing of 2016 and The Sanctuary Magazine. When he isn’t writing, Kevin is usually reading, gaming, or working at Bashore Scout Reservation, where he is currently the director of COPE and Climbing.

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