Mr. Bell never let our class out early, but he never wasted our time on schoolwork, either. Between 1:50 and 3:00 in the afternoon we were his captive audience. When we were done talking about the evolution of stars, or the curvature of space-time, or how the boundless universe filled itself up with infinite dark matter and divided itself by zero over and over, Mr. Bell wanted to talk about the important things. He wanted to talk about the real shit, things deeper and darker than space. He wanted to talk about big, bad, real life.
“It’s comin’ up quick for you guys.” he would say.
Mr. Bell stalked away from the board, bouncing each step on his knees as if he’d never put down his rucksack from the Vietnam War. He’d never been to Vietnam of course, but he had served. He got on the long bus out of high school, learned how to tuck in his shirt, and flew coach to West Germany. There he waited in a tall, empty tower for two years while his gun gave him the silent treatment. I imagine his post looked something like him: thin rails leading up to a big gray box at the top, cigarette smoke rolling out, flaccid in the wind.
But when Mr. Bell wanted to talk about real life he would find his black office chair. The worn chair, cushioned by foam and fake leather, resembled the moody creases of his own face, the face over which his brow drooped like a satin curtain, fringed by his heavy eyebrows. Even his wily smiles were saddled in this perpetual frown. He wore the expression like a medal from every war he didn’t fight, the countless hours of faithful service to British Broadcasts. He was an apparition everywhere in the bloody world, but touching none of it. He knew when the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates; he knew why fewer and fewer students were passing California’s BAR exams; he knew how much money Japan’s navy spent on gas; he knew how to aim an elephant gun to two-hundred meters, and how to build an atomic bomb. He could recite T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland from memory. He read it to every class before Christmas break:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water . . .
But when Mr. Bell wanted to talk about real life, he always sat down, and leaned so far back that his slim frame would seep into the chair’s cracks until he was practically blanketed by the skinny gray tie deflated on his sunken chest. His right calf would rest on his left knee, his ash pant legs exposing the black socks dipped in his black wingtips. He interlocked his rigid fingers and rested his hands like a bony crown on his flat stomach. He ate very little: an egg, a slice of plain burnt toast for breakfast; some cans of Pepsi, some cups of applesauce, and a pair of cupcakes throughout the day. Cigarettes suffocated his appetite, a habit built replacing the sleep he wasn’t getting as a teenager. He spent too many nights staring through his plaster ceiling, comparing himself to the universe. He too would thin into nothing one day, or grow dense, imploding on his own gravity. He too could only bear so much heat before the light would disperse forever, his body would grow cold, and he would forget to exist. How could he possibly care about History class?
Instead of lying awake, he would stand outside, still and quiet, as if imagining his wake, practicing, perfecting a private hymn with each scarring breath. He would stand there, relieved to be empty, relieved to feel his vitality if only as it burned away. He had been hungry to learn everything, yet so much reading made his stomach hurt.
When Mr. Bell wanted to talk about real life, he leaned back in his chair, legs crossed, hands locked, a smirk beneath his gray goatee, eyes smoldering behind thick glasses.
“Have you ever been drunk?” he asked us each, one by one. “Have you ever smoked pot?” he chuckled. “What about cocaine? Would you try cocaine?”
Mr. Bell was not just the devil’s advocate; they shared a landline. He even bragged that his theme song was the Rolling Stones classic, “Sympathy for the Devil.”
“Have you ever thought of killing someone?”
We usually laughed at his interrogations, but this one stilled the room, shattered the air. No one breathed because for the moment there was nothing to breathe. The oxygen had swept out of the room, leaving us in a vacuum.
“Why?” someone finally pled with stale breath. Mr. Bell ignored the question, believing we knew exactly why.
“Have you ever thought about it?” he repeated.
Mr. Bell had thought about it. Louis Bell—his friends called him Louie—had scraped out a high school diploma. He was fresh and raw and ready for the real world. He would go to college, he would find his calling, he would make himself whole. But as summer lingered over Illinois, Louie and his friends broiled under their long hair. None of them had gotten even with their bullies, their teachers, their parents, themselves. The booze, the pot, the cigarettes, the smack all disappointed them.
Louie wondered aloud to his friends what it might feel like. They sat in their sweat around a friend’s attic, rubber bands around their arms, scratching their faces, batting the idea around like cats do a mouse, eager to claw and bite, but not to eat the remains. Hypotheses were suggested. Methods were debated. Spoons were heated. Needles were passed. Then, one day, there was a plan.
It wasn’t until then that Louie opened his backpack and showed his friends something they’d never held before: power. The gun was cheap, small, and had a narrow, ratty snout. But it was loaded. They passed the weapon around, nervous laughter freezing the calm in their veins.
“Why’d you get this?” asked a friend as he weighed the pistol in his twitching hand. Louie ignored the question, believing they all knew exactly why.
“Luckily, they stopped us before we could do anything.” Mr. Bell calmly announced.
“How’d they find out?” I blurted.
“Oh, we got caught for something else.” He excused the relevance of the question with a limp wave of his hand. “Drugs.” he added then, as if he’d almost forgotten. “So they put me in the army, and I’ll never get those two years back.” He looked wistfully out the window.
It was a sunny day. The parking lot was beginning to crowd with carpooling parents, the hill over the soccer field was beginning to crowd with blue and white, our school colors. Some players were already on the pitch, running minor drills between translucent orange cones. The trees were full and green; the grass was rich and subtly peppered with fallen leaves from the previous winter. A driver waved to a student crossing the lot. A bird ducked between two trees. A landscaping truck bounced like a fishing trawler over the rolling green wave of a far hill.
Mr. Bell glanced at the clock hanging over the whiteboard, and then looked at our grave faces. He chuckled to himself, and shook his head.
“Alright,” he said, “get out.”
We all stared.
“It’s only 2:40,” someone said.
Mr. Bell sighed and sank even deeper into his chair.
“That clock is twenty minutes behind,” he lied.
“We can just go? Why?” asked somebody else.
Mr. Bell ignored the question, believing we all knew exactly why. When he stood and reached for his jacket under the desk, the class began to rise. The room was still quiet: No one else had taken a book out, so there was nothing to pack. By the time I folded my notebook I was the last student there. Mr. Bell was still loading books into his briefcase.
“Have a good one,” I called as I walked to the door.
“Sonnenberg,” he demanded, and I turned around. He stretched out his whole arm to point at me with a stern lance of a finger, one 10-ton eyebrow hoisted impossibly high. “Don’t get in too much trouble this weekend.”
His hard face cracked into impish delight. The smile didn’t erase his frown, or relax his shoulders, but it glowed all the same. He held up both arms in an awkward, cartoonish shrug.
“Fair enough.” he chimed.
Jonathan Sonnenberg is a young writer and student in New York City. His poetry is an obsessive and earnest exploration of the human condition. Much of his work investigates an upper-middle-class American perspective, touching on the political deficits of privilege. He is the 2015 recipient of the Patricia Gauche Creative Writing Award. Some of his expository prose has appeared in NYU Gallatin’s online publication, Confluence.