WHEREVER I GO by Shannon Deaton
I ONLY CLEAN ONE HALL since the fog set in. It’s a tidy hall, and the kids this way are bigger, more likely to spit gum in the wastebasket. On Friday afternoons, I mop Mr. Kelly’s tiles the most on account of his Monday morning temper. He said to me once, “Charlie, if you don’t mop those tiles tomorrow, I’m going to cut your throat.” I never heard a teacher talk that way before Mr. Kelly. Now I mop one tile at a time, and sometimes I change the water too.
When the bell rings, the kids are out the door, and I’m in the broom closet. I think Jack Macy’s off tonight, and it’s just me filling buckets with soap. You can’t pour much soap, or it bubbles over the side before the water gets up. Jack taught me about soap twenty-eight years ago. He’s been off work a long time, but he’s probably coming back. I saw Jack in a box once, laid out with flowers and a collared shirt.
I push the mop bucket by the handle and remember I didn’t sweep yet. It’s that fog again, rolling in the old noodle. Last year I parked my car on the football field and asked the goalpost for a ride to Katie Lang’s birthday party. Old Jack caught me on the swing set, told me I was scaring the kids. In ten more minutes I would’ve been on the moon, probably eating cake and asking Katie Lang to flash her bra. Sometimes you just wake up and you’re fifty-seven.
“Mr. Putts, I think you better get a broom first.”
It’s that boy who smokes weed in the girl’s bathroom. He calls me Mr. Putts, and I think I call him Whitney. We work together, but he’s no Jack Macy. Jack saves the smokes for quitting time, and he knows the difference in tobacco and yard trimmings. Old Jack and I would smoke Pall Malls, trading bull about urinals and gum and lady teachers in short khakis. This boy doesn’t shoot bull, and he mostly reminds me I’m an idiot.
In Mr. Kelly’s classroom, the desks are in neat rows. When I mop, I look at each one in passing. The kids do an excellent job of leaving swear words and crude drawings everywhere. I clean the desks with Andy’s All-Purpose Degreaser, but every night brings new art. I thought about leaving my own messages once or twice, but Mr. Kelly would probably cut my throat for it. Mr. Kelly’s keen on cutting throats.
I mop the first white tile, and the desk beside it reads, “Lucy & John 4-ever.” In about thirty years, John will probably smoke pot in the girl’s bathroom, and Lucy will throw birthday parties on the moon. I can’t reason how these kids even know about forever. They’re only ten, and life doesn’t start till you smoke a Pall Mall with Jack Macy. I hope Jack got the flowers I sent.
Most desks have dragons, clouds, and bouncy rocket ships. Only the last one is special. It’s perfectly clean except for a poem written in black ink. It reads:
Wherever I go
I will be there
To meet with myself
Wherever I go
The straightness of the letters, the beauty of the penmanship. Each new line begins with a cursive letter, taller than the others and longer. I run my finger over it, admiring the edge of the left margin. It’s like God mistook the Book of Life for a wooden table and hid it in Mr. Kelly’s classroom. I’m not much for figuring poetry, but this one gives me a feeling.
I’m locked in the broom closet. Not because I have to be but because it’s where I am. I wrote that poem in a little book I carry for scribbling. I’ve read it all night, and I don’t think the boy knows I’m here. He smelled funny when I saw him last, so he probably doesn’t care I’m picking broom straws and building a manger. The fog’s thick as two thieves, and I put too much soap in the bucket. Jack taught me not to do it that way, but I’ll get my throat cut if I don’t. Mr. Kelly needs his room cleaned, and it takes soap to do it.
There’s a knock on the door.
“Mr. Putts? Are you in there? I can hear water running.”
I tell the boy I’m drawing a bath, but he insists I let him help. He reminds me I’m an idiot, so I pour the water out and start over. This time he tells me to sweep and he’ll do the mopping. Good thing I have a pocket full of broom straws.
It’s still there. Looks like Mr. Kelly tried to blot it out with a paper towel, but the poem’s written in pen. It takes Andy’s All-Purpose Degreaser to clean ink, and I poured it all down the toilet. Since Mr. Kelly teaches English, I thought he’d appreciate pretty words. He can cut my throat from now till Friday, and I still won’t smear a letter.
That Whitney boy’s growing on me. I asked him to smoke a Pall Mall later, and he told me he’d love it. I’ve had a pack since Jack called in, and if the boy has a light, I’ll see what he thinks about urinals and lady teachers. There’s a teacher in the office, Greta Smith, and I’ve been giving her the old eye. She told me today about some vomit in the gymnasium, and I told her I had a good kitchen on Lucky’s Branch.
“Mr. Putts, I’m done for the night. If you want that smoke, I’ll see you outside.”
I meet the boy, and the sun’s just starting down the colored sky. I tell Whitney I’m sorry for acting strange, it’s just the fog in my noodle. He seems to understand, but then he looks at me sideways. Jack never did that. We used to shoot the bull with eyes on the skyline, watching stars suck the red and orange.
“Where you heading tonight, Mr. Putts?”
“Wherever I go, I will be there.”
“What does that mean?”
I have no idea. When I first read the poem, I thought it was about following a shadow. Then I remembered you can’t follow a shadow. Not unless it belongs to someone else, and that’s creepy. Greta Smith called me creepy when I followed her to the bathroom. She went in the door but came right out, and I doubt she did any business at all.
“Boy, do you know anything about poems?”
“I know they suck.”
Whitney takes a lighter from his pocket, and I feel my jacket sleeve for the Pall Malls. The red pack’s zipped inside, and it’s been there long as I remember. When the boy sees the pack, he puts away his lighter and tells me he needs to get home. Before he leaves, I ask him if he knows a kid in Mr. Kelly’s room who wrote a good poem. He must’ve not heard me, and I’m alone when stars spot the skyline.
I get it now. To meet with myself wherever I go. That part threw me, but now I remember the poem. I’m scraping gum off Mr. Kelly’s chalkboard like I did in fifth grade. I was sitting in English class, and I didn’t know how the comma went. Mr. Kelly didn’t like it, and he told me I could stay after school and draw commas till my hand broke off.
I told him I couldn’t get a ride home, and my brother Sam could only drive at three. When he said it didn’t matter, I cried and threw up in the floor. After that I cleaned his room for two weeks and walked three miles to the house. One day I asked off on account of my birthday, and Mr. Kelly said he’d cut my throat if I didn’t work. I think Mr. Kelly retired, but he never told me.
I slide my hand over the desktops, walking to the back of Mr. Kelly’s classroom. Katie Lang sat in back, and she giggled when I touched her neck. Girls were different that year, and I noticed Katie’s black curls. I wrote her that poem, and she copied it to her desk. When Mr. Kelly asked who did it, I showed him my pen, and he smacked me in the lip.
“Got more fog in the noodle?” Whitney says.
“Wherever I go.”
He tells me I’m a crazy old man, and I thank him. When Jack clocks in, I’ll apologize for being strange and ask him for a lighter. I’ve got enough broom straws to burn the school down.
SHANNON DEATON is an Assistant Professor of Education at University of the Cumberlands. He taught middle school English five years before sending his first work into the world. Shannon and his wife live on a quarter-acre slice of Appalachian pie in Manchester, KY. He is published in The Madison Review and has work forthcoming in Concho River Review. If you enjoy Shannon’s work, let him know: shannon.deaton [at] gmail.com.