Timothy Reilly was a professional tuba player in both the United States and Europe during the 1970s (in 1978, he was a member of the orchestra of the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy). He is currently a retired substitute teacher, living in Southern California with his wife, Jo-Anne Cappeluti: a published poet and scholar. He has published widely, most recently in Grey Sparrow, Florida English, and Relief. His stories have also appeared in Flash Fiction (UK), Slow Trains Literary Journal, Amarillo Bay, and Seattle Review, as well as other print and online journals.
My wife walked out on our front porch and surprised a young man rifling through our mail box. “What do think you’re doing?” she said, like a teacher catching a student with a crib sheet.
The would-be thief was dressed all in black—including a black LA Dodgers baseball cap (even criminals are fashion-coordinated these days). Without flinching, he said: “I’m supposed to meet this guy to buy a TV he’s selling on Craig’s List.” He held out a clipboard as if it were proof of official status.
“Is he meeting you in our mail box?”
“Is this 123 Maple Street?” he asked.
“Not even close,” my wife said. “What’s the name of the man from Craig’s list?”
I now came out on the porch. I had been watching from behind the screen door. I was armed with a digital camera and a large crescent wrench (the wrench was in my back pocket—just in case).
“Guess what, Hon?” my wife said to me in mock-airhead. “This man is here to meet Craig. . . from Craig’s List. Isn’t that interesting?”
“What’s your name?” I said to the man. I took a good look at him. He was young but street-worn, with ears like Nosferatu poking out the sides of his cap. There were small abrasions on his face and knuckles and forearms. No visible tattoos. He shifted his feet and put his right hand into his front pocket.
“I’ll tell you my name,” he said, like a threat. He started walking toward me.
I snapped his photo.
“Why are you taking my picture?” he whined. He fumbled trying to shield his face with his clipboard—knocking his hat off in the process, exposing a corpse-white, shaved head.
“You’ll find out,” I said, snapping more photos as he ran down the street and jumped into a waiting black Honda Civic. The driver, a woman with blue hair sculpted into a prominent topknot, drove off like a street-racer. The car was fit with dealership paper license plates.
I phoned the police, and an officer came out to our house to hear our account. He said the man in our photos resembled a local meth-head. He asked us to email the photos to the police department.
“We also got his hat,” I said, holding it up like the severed head of Medusa.
“You can keep the hat,” said the cop. “Or throw it away. It’s of no use to us.”
I threw it away.
The next morning, as I was watering the bougainvillea at the front of our house, a man wearing a black hoodie and cobalt blue sunglasses stopped on the sidewalk and asked if I had found a hat. I could barely see his face but I recognized his voice and the cuts on his knuckles. It was the would-be mail thief my wife and I had nicknamed “Count Orlok.”
“What does it look like?” I asked deadpan.
“It’s a Dodger baseball cap.”
“What color is it?”
He was becoming agitated. “Black,” he said with two syllables.
“Actually, black isn’t considered a color. Black absorbs light rather than reflect it.” (I was stalling in the hope that my wife was watching from a window and would recognize Count Orlok and call the cops.)
Count Orlok’s face crimped with anger and his body seemed to expand. “Listen you,” he growled. But then his face and body suddenly relaxed, as if released from a spell. A joyful, childlike voice came from out his hoodie cave: “I know you. You’re Mr. Lenihan: my third-grade teacher!”
I wasn’t buying it. I’d retired from teaching years ago, and this was the first time I’d met up with anyone claiming to be a former student. He could have learned my name from a piece of stolen mail. It had to be a con. But how did he know I’d been a third-grade teacher?
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Caleb. Caleb Woodbury. Remember me?” He removed his sunglasses and grinned. His eyes were red and puffy, his front teeth missing, and his lower teeth looked as if they were held in place with tar.
“I’ve had more than a few Calebs over the years,” I said. “Refresh my memory. How long ago was it?"
“Fifteen years ago. Remember? I gave you a Batman coffee mug for Christmas. You kept it on your desk. Remember?”
I could have started a mail order business with the number of coffee mugs I’d received during my teaching years. Still, he seemed in earnest. I squinted to reverse his meth-distorted features and caught a glimpse of a little boy: a mother’s child.
“What’s going on?” my wife said. She walked to my right side.
“This is Caleb Woodbury,” I said. “A former student.”
“I gave him a Batman coffee mug,” Caleb beamed.
“I see,” my wife said. She was reading my face: attempting to set up a line of telepathy between us. “What brings you here, today, Caleb?”
“He was looking for his hat,” I said, looking into her eyes.
“What hat?” she said. We were connected.
“It don’t matter,” said Caleb.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
Caleb smiled. “Yeah,” he said. He seemed delighted in being a student again. “It doesn’t matter.”
I was still straining to remember this particular “Caleb-the-student.” Nothing significant stood out. Was this the Caleb who liked to play kickball and dodgeball? Had he been a loner? a class clown? Did his parents show up sober to all the parent/teacher meetings? What had sparked the unholy transformation of Caleb-the-student to Caleb the meth-head-mail-thief?
“What’s your favorite memory about your teacher?” my wife asked. She knew what she was doing.
He didn’t hesitate. “When he taught us a song. Remember, Mr. Lenihan? The one about the hat with three corners? We sang it in English and German, and you played the guitar.”
“Mein Hut, der hat drei Ecken,” I said.
“Yeah. That’s the one. I also liked when you read the Wizard of Oz and all those fairytales. Stuff like that.”
“I’m pleased you remembered, Caleb. I appreciate hearing that I’ve had some favorable impact on my students.”
I had taught songs and read books and stories to all my classes—from my first year of teaching to the last. I used the same inexpensive Yamaha acoustic guitar (changing its strings at the start of each school year). On a few rare occasions, I had been successful in teaching a class to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a round. I had had dozens of “challenging” students over the years, but their names have mostly faded from my memory, and also their faces. I remember one nameless/faceless student who refused to do anything other than draw the same picture of SpongeBob SquarePants. Another student’s mother once came to me in tears, saying that her son had attempted to hide a dead puppy in his closet. I had vicious students and students burdened with melancholy. And then there were the times when “meds” were considered the answer to control antsy and unruly students. For several years, I had at least three students per classroom, who were systematically dosed. I was issued a list to inform me when to send these students to the office to receive their “meds.” I could always tell when their time was nearing, by the anxiety and disruptiveness they exhibited. Once released, they would rush to the office in a nervous frenzy and then return to the classroom, usually after lunchtime, lethargic and dispirited.
“Do you still have the Batman mug?” Caleb asked.
“Doubtful,” I said. “What else do you remember from our class?”
He looked down the street and began picking at his chin. “I remember that you were my favorite teacher.”
“What have you been doing since elementary school, Caleb?” my wife asked. “Are you enjoying life?”
He continued looking down the street, apparently considering the questions. Without changing the direction of his gaze, he replied glumly to the latter question: “Not really.”
My wife said she was very sorry to hear that.
Caleb slipped his sunglasses over his eyes. “It was good to see you, Mr. Lenihan. Mrs. Lenihan. I have to go now.” He walked and jogged westward to the end of the street and then turned the corner and disappeared.
We went back inside our house and immediately sensed an atmosphere charged by the uninvited. We then began to notice the physical evidence of burglary: drawers opened and cupboards ajar; cloths and papers strewn. The back door had been pried open, and from that opening we heard the screech of tires from the alley behind our backyard fence.
We phoned the police and then our bank and credit card companies. We compiled an inventory of everything missing: my wife’s purse, my wallet, several items of clothing (including two of my hats), our TV set, DVD player, my guitar, a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, a bottle of Tylenol, some makeup, jewelry, rubbing alcohol, Playtex gloves, kitchen knives, a box of gingersnaps, coffee mugs, duct tape, a crowbar, and a can of paint thinner. Our library was left untouched.
A police detective called later that evening and told us they had arrested Caleb and his girlfriend. “They were trying to purchase gift cards using your stolen credit cards,” said Detective Muñoz. “They’re part of a large identity-theft ring—meth-heads and dealers. Caleb was still on parole. He’ll be going on a much longer ‘vacation’ this time—I can tell you that.”
I thanked Detective Muñoz, and told him we were relieved they captured the Bad Guys.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “there’s a lot more where they came from.”
“So much for all those Red Ribbon Weeks,” I said.
The detective’s call was helpful but it would not reverse the invisible damage. My wife and I had been violated—sucker-punched—by someone pretending to be grateful for having been my student. This new experience changed us, and would continue to take its toll.
That night, I saw Caleb’s soulless face: staring at me through the murk of a dream. He was Nosferatu: raising his hand, from a tiny seat, in a blurry and lopsided classroom.
In the clear-headed morning, however, I began to have doubts whether Caleb (if that really was his name) had actually been my student. I considered the possibility that he could have stolen a bona fide former student’s identity and used it for all sorts of mischief, including duping a retired couple into distraction, while his blue-haired girlfriend ransacked their house.
But that line of reasoning was short on logic. He could not have gained knowledge of my pedagogy from a piece of stolen mail.
No. Caleb Woodbury had once (or perhaps twice) been a student in my third-grade class. I’m certain he had been one of the choir: belting out the song about the tree-cornered hat. And he was there, listening intently, with the rest of the class, while I read stories about the Ginger Bread Boy and Hansel and Gretel. But Caleb would learn nothing from those cautionary tales. As he grew older, he would willingly swap his soul for the empty rush from chemicals, and lose the ability to love. He would break the laws of God and the laws of Caesar, and when cornered, have the audacity to call himself the victim.