Excerpt from Miss Friend: A Novel (2014)



The following is an excerpt from Chapter One of Miss Friend.

Madeline Friend had considered her decision to become a high school English teacher perfectly reasonable, the natural extension of a lifelong interest in learning and sharing her learning with others. In college, she’d gained a reputation up and down the hallways of her dormitory as the girl to go to if you had questions about homework assignments, especially anything related to books.  “You like books, don’t you, Madeline?” her schoolmates would ask, their voices tinged with a faint suspicion, as though being a reader somehow made her a person not to be trusted. Perplexed—she thought everyone in college was supposed to like books—Madeline always responded with a faint surprise; but always, always, she was willing to help.

Before he had died of a heart attack when Madeline was eighteen, just before she entered college, her father had been an English scholar of some renown, studying and teaching everything from the Early Modern to Modernism. Meanwhile, cushioned by family money, her mother spent most of her free time reading, expanding, and alphabetizing her collection of detective novels. At her alma mater, Penelope Perkins—a women’s college with a student body of nine hundred—enrollment in a literature class never exceeded fifteen. Early on, perhaps as a result of such an intimate education, Madeline decided that she would run her own classroom, wherever she ended up teaching, like a college seminar (for it was an unspoken expectation, a given, that she would be a teacher—what else to do with a mind like hers?). Her pedagogical philosophy—in fact, the only way she knew how to teach—made her a moderator rather than a dictator, allowing the students themselves to do most of the talking.

After her graduation—summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa—she moved home, briefly, to earn her teaching certificate. Not long after that, she found a job at Grey Mound High, a public school that turned out to be surprisingly progressive. Everything seemed to be falling into place for her; everything was going right. The principal, Nancy Siffle, seemed so delighted to have someone as young and able as Madeline—“Someone who bothered to come out here all the way from Massachusetts!”—that she happily offered Madeline whatever teaching schedule she desired (never mind that she had some trouble pronouncing the word “Massachusetts”). Madeline would work part-time, committing three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) to teaching literature and writing to the tenth-grade students, who would rotate between other, better-equipped teachers for their science, math, and history requirements.

When Nancy asked, “just out of curiosity,” what Madeline intended to do with all her spare time, Madeline didn’t have a ready answer for her. Adjusting her hands in her lap, she curled her fingers into her palms, and listened while Nancy poured out a litany of possibilities for her: the community center in downtown Grey Mound offered yoga and Pilates—or maybe Madeline was more interested in dance? Jazzercise was Nancy’s personal favorite. Besides, Nancy reminded her, heart health was of the utmost importance, especially at Nancy’s age: probably, from the looks of things, twenty to thirty years older than Madeline, but then, you couldn’t be too careful, there was no time like the present, seize the day, et cetera.

Madeline rearranged her hands in her lap. “Or,” she said, “I thought I might get a cat.”

Nancy, a cat lover herself, swooned over the idea. “You seem pretty artsy,” she had told Madeline early on in their meeting, which no one had bothered to tell Madeline before, probably because she’d been surrounded by people like herself for as long as she could remember. But she decided to go along with the idea, and she spent her early days in Grey Mound coming up with ideas for what she could do with all that time off, four days a week.

“Artsy.” What did “artsy” people do with their time?

“You need a project,” her friend Celeste, in college, had said whenever Madeline was feeling down in the dumps, or bored, or easily distracted (college wasn’t hard enough for her, not even her 5000-level English classes taught by minds as great as her father’s had been). Celeste herself excelled at projects, at crafting birds and flowers out of origami paper, at painting her toenails, at meeting new people, skills Madeline could observe but never hope to imitate. Now, sitting in Nancy Siffle’s office, she heard Celeste’s voice in the back of her mind, the aural equivalent of those perfectly constructed origami creatures: “You need a project, Mad.”

She could try her hand at writing: she loved reading poetry, but hadn’t scribbled any verses herself since college (and even then, they’d been pale imitations of the greats). She tried to write poems about people she’d seen on the bus to Grey Mound, but realized she couldn’t get far without having actually spoken to them: it was too hard to imagine what, and how, they thought about things. Or painting: soon after arriving in Grey Mound, she’d found a cheap, one-bedroom house for rent, with a walk-in closet big enough to hold an easel and some art supplies, she thought, if she wanted to transform it into a miniature studio. Whatever she wound up doing, Madeline knew she should feel lucky to have landed a job at such a flexible, accommodating school, with a principal who seemed to appreciate having her there, and who took her needs and desires into account in arranging her schedule. She knew she should be grateful for what she had and not agonize over what she did not. It was the kind of advice her mother would have given her: not to wring her hands over the details,  but to be satisfied with the big picture.

In those early days in Grey Mound, settling in and unpacking, she had tried and failed to turn the closet into a work space, choosing instead to fill it with her minimal but expensive assortment of clothes, which mostly came in solid colors: olive greens, slate grays, and lots and lots of black. As a housewarming present, her mother mailed her the painting that had hung in their living room for as long as Madeline could remember, of her father and mother seated side by side. After trying out different spots around the house to display it, Madeline settled on her bedroom, because it had the only wall big enough, empty enough, and sturdy enough to support it. It was an odd painting, which was maybe why she liked it: there was something honest about the way her parents’ faces were smeared, as if they’d been painted with butter. Their eyes were watchful—even hopeful—although in certain lights, from certain angles, shadows of disapproval crossed their eyes. She’d seen the same look on informing her mother she’d be teaching English at a high school  in the middle-of-nowhere Midwest, instead of some nice liberal arts college in Vermont, closer to home. She was an only child, her widowed mother’s only hope; just twenty-three years into life she’d managed to disappoint her, and the ghost of her father, though neither of them would have said so, not quite in so many words.

True to form, her mother hadn’t remembered the name of the town where her daughter had found a job until Madeline repeated it over a pay phone at a bus stop five hours from her new home, her new life, in a foggy nowhere somewhere between the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. Time and space lost all meaning after eighteen hours on the road, but Madeline had thought it would be romantic to take the bus all that way. Over the fuzzy line, she could hear her mother take a clinky sip of her Scotch-and-soda. “Grey Mound? Ha! Sounds like you’re describing the mashed potatoes I had at the Slocumbs’ last night for dinner. It’s beyond me how anybody could manage to screw up such a simple thing as mashed potatoes, but trust me, Fanny Slocumb manages it beautifully.”

As Madeline stood there, shivering, listening to her mother gripe about the Slocumbs, her eyes grew misty. It was like talking to someone on another planet, so vast was the space between them, so impossible to knit together.

A week or two before the start of the semester, in a fit of loneliness she went to the animal shelter and adopted a cat the color of smoke. He amused her for a day or two, but ended up being as standoffish and aloof toward her as she was toward him. He liked to eat and sleep, but not to be petted. Madeline liked to drink and sleep, and would have liked to have been petted, but the problem with cats was they couldn’t pet you back, now, could they?

After a while they became bored with each other, and existed like a pair of roommates who had been forced together, cordial but not particularly friendly. Madeline named him Magellan, imagining he had a secret desire to wander, to stray from Grey Mound.

Perhaps as an extension of her own desire to travel, she bought a car: a bottle-green 1980s German model, from an old collector on the outskirts of town. Behind the wheel, she could feel, even if she was just planning a trip to the grocery store, that she was escaping, from this odd new life, this world that seemed to have forced itself on her, coming to her like an accident. The car smelled musty inside, and the leather seats were torn and cracked, and she had to re-learn how to use a stick shift, which her father had taught her months before he died. The sense of freedom it gave her made it worth the $800 price tag. She had never before owned her own car, and she felt like a grown-up, driving an antique so clunky and masculine.

In the absence of a project, Madeline’s first and only high school English class became her main consideration. She dedicated her first few weeks in Grey Mound to devising lesson plans, a reading list, even a syllabus modelled after her English classes in college. The way she planned it, the students were to do several things: complete the reading, be prepared to ask questions and engage in insightful discussion with their peers, and, in general, endeavor to understand, enriching their lives with an appreciation of what literature had to offer, something that, in her eyes, it was not only essential that they do, but expected, understood to be a necessity, not only by the students themselves, but by their families and their other teachers. Endeavor to Understand. She liked the phrase; a professor in college had often said it, though she couldn’t remember which one. She cut the letters individually out of shiny gold poster board, punched holes through them, strung them together on a piece of twine, and draped them in a banner across the front of her classroom.

What Madeline hadn’t counted on—what, somehow, no one had bothered to explain during her time in college or while earning her teaching certificate—was that, sometimes, students didn’t want to endeavor to understand, or endeavor to do anything at all. Sometimes, as a student had yawned to her on more than one occasion, they just didn’t feel like it. Sometimes—she had to face the fact, painful as it was—your students just weren’t very bright. They were like the girls in college who had come to her asking for help, surprised and suspicious that she liked books as much as she did.

For example: once, when she’d had the class discuss Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the entire discussion of the three-page story (three pages! And yet only two people in the class seemed to have done the reading), they had spent the entire time debating whether the “thing” the couple in the story was talking about, “to let the air in,” to make their lives simpler, was an abortion or not.  Madeline had tried, in vain, to assure them that, in fact, it was. She wanted them to talk about dialogue. She wanted them to talk about how to set the tone in a short story. Instead, they chuckled when she mentioned the girl in the story “fingering” a beaded curtain. They thought the white elephants might have something to do with Christmas: if it was an abortion, they conceded, maybe the whole story was about getting a present you hadn’t known you wanted (something Amanda, Lola, and Sissy all seemed to know a thing or two about). Madeline could do nothing to steer them away from their theories: she tried to get them to look at a few passages in particular, to complete an exercise in close reading, but their boredom and annoyance permeated the air, and, fumbling for an excuse to let them out early—she was fumbling, always fumbling—eventually she told them she wasn’t feeling well (which was the truth, and seemed to hold some weight with them).

The feeling only got worse as the weeks went by.

She had assumed intellectual curiosity, a sense of involvement and interest on the part of her students, because it was what she was used to. She had grown up with parents who encouraged her book-worminess; she’d attended a prestigious college of her peers. Throughout her life, she had tended to surround herself with people who liked to read and try out different projects and talk about what was on their minds, and suddenly, it seemed, she wasn’t surrounded by such people anymore.

Now that she had been teaching at Grey Mound for several weeks, every time she entered the classroom, this recognition hit her like a slap in the face, a punch to the gut, and every other cliché she could think of (because they made her feel stupider, and less original, than she’d ever felt in her life). Her secret suspicion that she would always be somehow inadequate—dumber and less interesting than everybody she knew—was magnified when she confronted a classroom of twenty-five high schoolers. The first day, when they all stared at her like cows, she felt like a fool, an imposter, someone who had ended up in a starring role without knowing her lines. She had to catch her breath, as she was talking, because she was nervous, and because she knew they could all see right through her.

Since the Hemingway incident, instead of grading, reading student exercises, or planning her next class, Madeline’s evenings had become devoted to drinking boxed wine, feeding the cat, and looking up ticket prices to Paris, prices she could never afford, even with the $100 allowance her mother continued to send her every two weeks and which Madeline, despite her better judgment, continued to accept. She began to think of her life as two separate lives, two pieces of herself: one was here in the classroom—with the cow-eyes and the banner that was beginning, increasingly, to feel like an emblem of war, the rows of desks increasingly like a battlefield—while the other life lay on the other side of town in the house she had tried to make cozy, but which was still drafty at all hours because Grey Mound seemed to have two types of weather: damp, and damper. There, in her other life, the radio played, the cat groomed himself. Her painted parents watched her map, online, the distance from various hotels to the stained glass windows and vaulted arches of Sainte Chapelle.

Within a matter of weeks, Madeline had simply stopped caring. Never a patient person to begin with, she had become sloppy in her lesson plans, letting the students out early after agreeing with them that, yes, they were right, meeting for forty-five minutes three times a week was too much class time (“I mean,” Bobby Payne had mused one morning, rolling his eyes up to the fiberglass-tiled ceiling, “how much can you really say about a short story? Aren’t they short for a reason?” His classmates had nodded sagely, and Madeline found herself nodding too, though that may have been the result of her taking three Nyquil the night before). She knew it showed, knew her apathy was contagious. But she didn’t much care about that, either. These days, there wasn’t much Madeline seemed to care about, or much that seemed to care about Madeline.

She had no friends in Grey Mound, no one to confide in. Most of her friends from college had been just that: college friends, not friends for life. After graduation, most had moved on to find husbands and jobs that kept them happy and busy, too busy to talk to Madeline, who, in addition to being known as a bookworm in college, had gained the reputation of being a bit of a downer. Without anyone to talk to, while washing the dishes or completing other menial tasks, she found herself talking to Celeste in her mind, creating imaginary meetings at nonexistent coffee shops, leaning in conspiratorially close to her former roommate, the closest friend she’d ever had—so close, in fact, she sometimes seemed like the only friend Madeline had ever had.

“I wonder how I got here,” Madeline would say to her. “I’m only twenty-three, but I feel forty-five.”

In her mind, Celeste nibbled at her nails, took a sip of her latté, smiled coolly.

“It’s always something with you, isn’t it, Mad? You aren’t happy here, you weren’t happy back east; I don’t think you were even happy in college.” She would examine the French manicure she treated herself to every couple of months, each nail rimmed in white like a slice of the moon. “You think you were happy, then, but you weren’t, really. I was there. I saw you.”

“But I kept busy. I had school, things to read and write. I had you.”

And Celeste would shake her head, almost imperceptibly, regarding her with cold blue eyes.

“I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. You need a project.” Then, leaning back, folding her arms, smirking: “What about the boy? Couldn’t he become your project?” Which was just the sort of advice Celeste had a tendency to give.

Richard. She’d met him while earning her teaching degree—at a bar, of all places, not far from her mother’s house—but they had had to part ways just a few months after meeting. He was bound for Italy, on a research fellowship for his PhD in physics, and Madeline was heading to Grey Mound. She wasn’t even sure if she could call him her boyfriend; she wondered what he called her, to people, if he spoke of her at all.

“Or,” Celeste’s voice banged like a bell, inside her mind, “are you not so into that whole idea?” She had a feline sensuality about her, her eyes slanting like the eyes of a Siamese cat. “You’re an independent woman, aren’t you, Mad? Trekking into unknown territory. Surviving in this foggy, awful place.”

It was true—not having to rely on a man made Madeline feel brave, or think she felt brave; she imagined she was stronger without Richard around. It had probably all started with losing her father, the man she was closest to in her life, realizing, after it happened, that she could be all right (for the most part), that she didn’t need him as badly as she might have thought, even though before his death the thought of not having him around would have been unfathomable to her. The thought of her own freedom helped her to form a picture of herself like Nancy’s “artsy” one, guiding her toward some better understanding of who she was—and that was what helped her to ignore the sadness that swept over her, now and then, when she reflected on how Richard had had to leave before they’d really gotten to know each other, before they’d discovered much to talk about face-to-face, let alone over a hazy Internet connection on Madeline’s computer, which, like other things in her life, seemed to be slowly giving up, shutting down, piece by piece.

On a Friday morning five weeks into the fall term, Madeline did not enter her classroom with any particular plan in mind. As she removed her coat, she looked blandly at her students, who looked blandly back at her, some with their heads on their desks, some with their necks tipped back on their chairs like the lids on so many cans of navy beans. At some point, they seemed to have arrived at some unspoken agreement not to greet her when she came into the classroom, and she returned the favor; she regarded them with what she saw as a mutual, wordless resentment. “What am I doing here?” she would have liked to have asked someone, and she had a feeling, when they looked at her, that they would have liked to ask her the same question.

At the back of the room, Tony Burley and Rod Clayton were tossing a football back and forth. When Madeline told them to sit down, they tumbled over their desks into their seats. Their classmates laughed. In a movie she might have checked her seat for a thumb tack or whoopee cushion—there was, after all, a first time for everything. But Madeline’s life was no movie.

She set her books on her desk.

“Any questions, before we begin?”

A hand went up.

“Yes. Janey.”

Janey jumped, apparently surprised she’d been called upon.

“Yeah, uh, when’s the first test?”

Madeline swallowed. “As I stated on the first day of school, and reiterated last week, there are no tests in this class. You’ll have a paper due at the end of the term.” Madeline looked around the room. “Other questions?”

Rod asked, “Yeah, uh, how do we do that?”

Madeline thought of the wine glasses accumulating on her desk at home, the ones she hadn’t found the time or the energy to wash, cranberry-colored stains congealing at the bottom, like blood. She could feel the creases deepening under her eyes. She took a deep breath.

“That’s what you’re in this class to learn. We are spending all semester on writing papers.” I’ve said this! I’ve said this! “We begin with topic sentences. Introductory paragraphs. Soon we’ll move into the body of your paper.”

From the back of the room she thought she heard someone make a joke like “I’ll move into her body.” She felt herself teetering in her heels like a baby bird in its nest.

“Let’s get started.”

But, then, Tony—Antonio Burley, Mr. Popular, whom she’d often spotted smoking pot on top of the burial mound behind the school—called out without raising his hand.

“Miz Friend?”

“Yes, Tony.”

“I got a question.”

“Yes, Tony.”

She met Tony’s eyes, and he didn’t look away from her, even when everybody turned around to look at him.

He smirked at her, a weird sort of half-grin, one eye squinting skeptically at her.       “You all right, Miz Friend?”

They faced Madeline again. She was still moving back and forth gently, a willow in the wind. Endeavor  to Understand. Behind and above her, she could hear the banner’s message pounding through her head. Or was it her own heart, this pounding?

Tony cleared his throat. “I mean . . .  if you don’t mind my saying so, Miz Friend, you don’t look so hot.”

But did she ever? True, she’d stayed up later than she meant to the night before, watching reruns on her tiny TV, polishing off a $17 box of Cabernet, her teeth feeling mossy because she hadn’t seen a dentist in a while. But what could she tell them? What would they care, about her troubles? Troubles? What troubles?

She could feel her parents glaring down at her from the oil painting, their disappointment and expectation pulsing through her veins. She felt the air pressure in the room dropping steadily, a huge weight pressing down on her. She looked at her students, her hands trembling. Her eyes fell, for a long moment, on Amanda Stewart, one of the three young mothers in the class, along with Lola Blunt and Sissy Czolgosz. Amanda stared back at her and said, “What’s wrong with you?”

Almost, almost sympathetically.

She didn’t believe in God, but as she stood at the front of her classroom at that moment, she could feel a Godlike presence hovering over her. Judging. Pointing. Pounding, like her eardrums still pounded, swinging the mighty gavel down upon her, over and over.

Madeline closed her eyes. The clanging in her ears grew louder, as though some god were hammering away at an anvil inside her brain. Feeling bad was no excuse for what she was about to say, and she knew it before the words came out of her mouth. She swallowed, but it did no good; the lie scorched the inside of her chest and roiled snakelike, unstoppable, up out of her mouth.

“Well. The truth is. I have a heart condition. A fatal heart condition.”

The pounding stopped. The air seemed to contract and expand at the same time. A pencil rolled off of Spencer Pennington’s desk and clattered to the floor. Tony Burley’s mouth was open. Lola Blunt’s eyes filled with tears.

“How bad is it?” Rod Clayton asked.

Madeline curled her fingers into her palms.

“Pretty bad. That’s what ‘fatal’ usually means.” The serpent coiled up and went to sleep inside her chest. “I’d been feeling tired, so I went to see the doctor, and that’s what he told me.” She looked down at her fingers, plucking at them like a distracted child plucking at piano keys. “That’s why I’ve been so . . . absent-minded, lately. Such a crummy teacher to you all.”

She couldn’t bear to face them any longer. She shuffled the papers on her desk and stuck something inside a folder.

The class went silent, the air heavy and awkward. She was pretty sure she heard someone sniffling. She kept her eyes on her desk, which was why she didn’t see who it was who said something, but later she came to realize it had to have been Tony Burley, since it came from his general vicinity at the back of the room.

“You’re not a crummy teacher, Miz Friend.”

In her mind, she heard herself breathe the words “Thank you,” but they appeared like steam on the bathroom mirror after she’d taken a shower, and she wiped them away before they could emerge from her mouth. She straightened her papers, clacking the folder against the top of her desk, and looked up at her students.

“Class dismissed.” ♦