A Gift from Mr. Blorenge
By James Butler-Gruett
An hour before our dinner with my principal, Mr. Blorenge, I was in a froth, shouting from the bathroom at Donatella. I’d been recommended, against my will, for a promotion.
“It’s Hucko,” I yelled. “Hucko recommended me, is what Blorenge said.”
“Who?” Donatella yelled from the other room.
“Mr. Hucko, the history teacher,” I yelled. “He’s trying to save himself from getting promoted. At my expense.” I buttoned the top two buttons of my shirt, then unbuttoned them. “And don’t you have to apply for a promotion? I thought you had to want it. I don’t want it.”
“Maybe you won’t get it,” Donatella yelled.
I frowned at my stubble in the mirror and decided it was negligible.
“Let’s hope,” I said, putting a shoe up on the bathroom counter to tie it.
I’d hoped for a while, since I started working at Hyde Academy a year ago. I’d hoped to endure my current position, which mostly involved harassing tired teenagers through Oedipus the King and The Great Gatsby. I’d hoped my students—oily knots of earbuds and hoodies who slacked and mocked according to their roles with occasional malice—wouldn’t hate me. My hope and I had both, in fact, endured. Now I hoped Hucko’s recommendation wouldn’t make things unendurable.
“Blorenge did say at the meeting that there’s another candidate,” I muttered.
“Maybe you’d like a promotion,” Donatella yelled.
I repressed my inward snarl. Our school hadn’t had a Lead Teacher all semester. Ms. Stephenson, a fragile Studio Art teacher who’d been the previous Lead Teacher, had walked out midway through last October after a bitter student snuck in after school and pissed on one of her canvases. No one had stepped up, and Mr. Blorenge hadn’t gotten around to appointing someone until now. The position involved a miniscule pay-raise for untold planning and hassle. It was valuable only as a stepping stone to higher things, and I wanted nothing higher.
“Many promotions,” I said to Donatella, walking into the living room, “are traps disguised as gifts.”
Donatella was dressed in a soft gray argyle sweater and a black skirt. She sat perched on our striped living room sofa, eating a bowl of popcorn, one kernel at a time. “When’s the interview?” she asked.
“Wednesday.” I bent to tie my other dress shoe. “Tonight’s just a way to get to know each other better,” I said, imitating Mr. Blorenge’s stentorian bellow.
Donatella rolled her eyes.
“What’s that?” I said, nodding at Donatella’s bowl of popcorn. “Is there cheese on that?”
Donatella looked at me and smiled: “White cheddar. A student gave it to me.”
“Willingly?” I said. “Must have been Katie.”
“The one,” Donatella said. “The only.”
“Katie’s a good egg,” I said, grabbing a handful of popcorn. I knew most of the students’ names who came up in her stories. Donatella taught at Lincoln West, a nicer high school than mine. She was that rare species, a well-liked math teacher. “She’s going places.”
“Where do eggs go?” Donatella said.
“They roll,” I guessed. “Wobble.”
Donatella’s German Shepherd, Kimo, strolled into the room, hoping for kernels. We had first met, Donatella and I, at a dog park nine months ago. At the time I had a sullen lhasa apso, Venus (full name: Venus in Fur) that I dragged across the grass. Donatella and I both ignored our dogs as they strained at their leashes. She was a teacher, too, and told good stories. I invited her to drinks then, later game nights with friends, and eventually we needed a place together.
I lost Venus, however, a week after that day in the dog park with Donatella. On a Friday in June, the last day of summer school, I came home to my old place to find the house and backyard completely empty. Her water bowl was still full. There had been a hole at the bottom of the fence I hadn’t gotten around to fixing. She was my first dog, and I hadn’t considered that she even could run away, the comical image of a mop head on the loose. Besides, where would Venus go? I had thought. After dozens of phone calls made and fliers posted to no response, I still wondered.
At first I’d taken it as a bad omen for the relationship, some god telling me to run from Donatella, too. But Donatella and I fit together well. We commiserated without clashing, reviewed daily slights, re-wrote obscene comebacks. We didn’t go out much, but who did? I watched her watch TV. She had expressive eyebrows and a mole I admired. I guess I may have loved her. We didn’t talk about it much.
“Why do I have to go?” Donatella said now.
“I told Blorenge you would.”
“You agreed for us both?”
“Thomas Nasypany, you are a swine,” Donatella said, and threw a kernel of popcorn at me. Kimo pursued it.
“You’ve never met him,” I protested. “He shouts and imposes. He can sell people.”
“Like you,” Donatella said.
Spring in Nebraska was a Trojan Horse for snow. Around the beginning of March, the sun would come out for the first time in months to a cold blue sky. The roads would clear, and charming field trip groups would descend on the Lincoln Children’s Zoo or the National Museum of Roller Skating. I might read for an hour on a park bench on a Sunday. Within a weekend or two, however, as soon as the newcomers had put away their pails of sidewalk salt, a blizzard would descend. Snow plows would return, to reap the fruits of our self-deception. Red ticker tape across the bottom of the local news would tell us which schools were closed, fingers crossed for ours. And what we’d thought was a grace would turn out to have caught us unprepared and wrecked us, at least for a month or so longer.
We were in that wrecked period now as I drove us to Mr. Blorenge’s house. The roads were bumpy and littered with blackening mounds of frost. Donatella squinted at her phone’s directions from the passenger seat, both of us jumping a little each time it screamed out the turns.
“Turn your volume down,” I said.
“What?” Donatella yelled.
It hadn’t occurred to me as I saw the address, but as we arrived, I noticed that Mr. Blorenge lived close to my old apartment. His house was at the end of a nicer cul-de-sac, with fine ornamentation and outrageously dramatic eaves. I pointed at it through the windshield, slowing down.
He met us on the welcome mat, and used my first name awkwardly. He wore a golf shirt, floral-patterned shorts, and house slippers.
“I’ve made a dish I think you’ll like—Thomas,” he said.
It had never occurred to me to wonder whether Mr. Blorenge was married, but as we moved through his house, it seemed not. He gave us a tour, pointing out and explaining absolutely everything within (“There’s my toothbrush,” he said). This was the longest stretch I had ever talked to him, so I didn’t have much to say in response.
In addition, the dilemma of how to act toward him presented itself to me here. I was caught between expected responses. If I had wanted the promotion, I knew, this would be the night when I impressed him, or tried to. I would drink too much, turn bawdy. I would tell a wild story, and he would turn red and call me “lad” and slap me on the back. He would buy me a new pair of suspenders. I would start to wear suspenders.
Similarly, if I’d wanted to torch my whole career, this would be the night when I drank one sip from a tumbler and threw the rest in his face. I would give him a piece of my mind, make a speech, and tear up my contract. But although I didn’t want to be the Lead Teacher, I needed to keep my job, and Mr. Blorenge hadn’t offered me a drink. Somehow I had to seem both unremarkable and unobjectionable, as bland as possible. To that end, I responded to each stop on the tour of his ordinary house as if we were seeing a caged lion, grabbing Donatella’s arm, fearfully impressed.
At the tour’s end, Blorenge led us to the dining room for dinner. He pulled a dish of pancetta-crusted mac and cheese out of the oven and served us, adding a spinach salad and sliced pears. He served these on white china set on blue chargers. Heavy velvet drapes hung over the windows. Schubert murmured on speakers in the background.
“I love this,” Donatella kept saying throughout the dinner with undisguised surprise. “I love this.”
I tried to make my conversation as boring as possible, giving one-word answers to everything. Every question or topic I deflected to Donatella or Mr. Blorenge. I wanted to be forgettable, without a self to speak of. To my chagrin, this came off as selfless, and it seemed to make Mr. Blorenge like me more.
“I’m not sure,” I said at one point, in response to a teaching question. “What do you think, Donatella?”
“Would you look at that,” Mr. Blorenge said, gesturing at me with his napkin, his mouth full. “What a generous man! How thoughtful you are.” He reacted similarly when I asked him for his opinion.
As for Donatella, she talked about her students as willingly as her subject matter. “Oh, let me tell you,” she said without irony, “about polynomials.” She spoke about her students and their quirks and flubs with a ready energy I didn’t have, or at least couldn’t afford to summon tonight. She taught at a school that our students transferred to and from all the time, so Mr. Blorenge was familiar with her system of references. The two of them couldn’t stop talking. Unfortunately, Mr. Blorenge seemed delighted with both of us.
“Let’s have some dessert,” Mr. Blorenge announced after a while. He brought us each a lemon bar and a cup of coffee.
“I love this,” Donatella said again, as Mr. Blorenge got out of his chair. The Schubert had stopped, and he needed to change the playlist. In the quiet, I heard a scratching and whining sound.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Blorenge sighed. He shook his head. “Do you two mind? My Furry has been in her kennel for a while now, and she’s getting antsy. Are either of you allergic?”
Donatella and I shook our heads.
“Good. I usually keep her in there in case someone is,” he said. He walked toward his guest room.
We heard a happy bark, and with a jingle, out came my lost dog. I sat stunned at the dining room table. She was a lhasa apso of the same size and coloring as Venus, mostly white with brown ears and a brown left-front sock. She still had in her hair the pink bow I had gifted her. The part of it that had read VENUS IN was rubbed off, so it now read FUR, thus “Furry.” I was almost certain it was her.
As soon as she saw me, Venus barked ecstatically and leapt up on me.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Blorenge said. “She usually doesn’t do that. She must like you.”
I said nothing back.
As we sat down to coffee again, Donatella, who had seen Venus only that once in the park, seemed not to recognize her. Now jacked on coffee, she began a long story about a student, and her presence became even more animated and joyful. I studied my cup, nodding occasionally, staying silent.
I had wanted to think of myself as someone who would leap to action in moments of injustice, someone who would now shout out at Mr. Blorenge and accuse him, point out the preposterous situation, demand an explanation, steal my dog back. I would have liked to be someone who could object at these times. But as at other signal crises in my life, I found myself frozen. It could have been the utter shock of the context, that some part of my brain simply wouldn’t let me recognize such an appearance. It could have been the small degree of uncertainty still left at this time. A ruthlessly sensible part of me insisted that it was my dog’s twin from the same breeder, or that, improbable as it seemed, I could have misremembered what she looked like. And perhaps most of all, someone who signed your paychecks, I thought afterwards, owned you in a way it was deeply unsettling to consider. Mr. Blorenge was not, of course, a particularly frightening or imposing figure. I didn’t feel intimidated when I was around him, at least on a conscious level. I didn’t want to be promoted, I thought. Yet in the actual moment, however, I didn’t speak at all.
At the end of Donatella’s story, she reached down to pet Venus. “Mr. Blorenge,” she asked. “I’m curious about this cute little dog. Where did you get her from, a breeder?”
I snapped my head up to attention. I swirled my spoon in my coffee at a speedy pace.
“Oh,” Mr. Blorenge said. He made kissing noises at Venus as she licked his outstretched fingers. “No, Furry here is a little miracle. A rescue, I suppose. She showed up in my yard about a year ago.”
I sped my spoon-swirling up, creating a whirlpool. That was when Venus had gone missing.
“Yes, she showed up pretty thirsty and ragged, so I brought her in and gave her some water, and we fell in love,” Mr. Blorenge said, smiling at Donatella and me and my dog. He petted her too hard, making her head bob up and down. “She’s been here ever since, haven’t you, Furry?”
“A rescue,” I repeated, breaking my silence. I spun Charybdis in my coffee cup.
Mr. Blorenge turned to me as if he had forgotten I was there. “Ahmhmm.”
“What a great story,” Donatella said.
I glared at her as hard as I could, but she was facing Mr. Blorenge.
“When I first got Kimo, it was the same thing,” Donatella said.
“Chemo?” Mr. Blorenge said. He blanched a little and reached his hand out for hers. “I’m so sorry. When was this?”
“Oh, no,” Donatella said, shaking her head and grinning, patting his hand. “Not that. My dog’s name is Kimo. K-I-M-O, short for Kimosabe, you know?”
Together, they burst out laughing. “I only meant my dog is a rescue,” Donatella said. The same confusion happened in every first conversation Donatella had about her dog. I, however, marveled at her ability not to make the connection with Mr. Blorenge’s story and my lost dog. I cut their laughter short.
“Did you call the Humane Society?” I said. “They have registries for lost dogs.”
“Well,” Mr. Blorenge said, caught off guard. “I went through all the proper channels. I wanted to be responsible. But, at the same time, you know what? If someone abandoned her, my little Furry, I don’t know that they deserved her.” And he scratched Venus under the chin.
“Huh,” I said, with a little too much juice, perhaps, my coffee a hurricane. “How do you know who the owners—”
“I mean, they could have been abusing her,” Mr. Blorenge said, cutting me off. “Mistreating her. Believe me, you should have seen her. I wanted to do the right thing, but there are some things you should spare yourself. You know?”
At that I pressed my spoon into the bottom of the cup so hard it squeaked, the motion abruptly stopping the flow of the coffee hurricane, causing it to slosh up over the sides of the cup, arcing over the saucer, the entire cup’s contents spilling over the front of my shirt, onto my pants, onto his wooden chair, all over the floor.
We cleaned up, apologized, and left. I fumed as we drove away. Donatella put the cap back on her Tide Pen.
“Can you believe that?” I said, shaking my head.
“The spill?” Donatella said.
I’d forgotten she hadn’t noticed.
“Before,” I said. “You didn’t notice anything…amiss?”
“The white cheddar?” she said. “I thought it was perfect.”
“That was my dog,” I said, looking away from the road at her. “My lost dog.”
I ran her through the clues, the bow, her coloring, her excitement to see me.
We hit a red light. She looked stunned but hesitant. “How would she have gotten here?”
“I used to live around the corner,” I said. “My old apartment complex is two yards over.”
“That’s right,” Donatella said. It washed over her. “Let’s go back, then. Turn around. I’m sure he’ll understand.”
“I’m not,” I said, accelerating as the light turned.
Donatella paused. “You think he knew she was your dog when he took her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think he called the shelters,” narrowing her eyes, “or put up the posters?”
I shook my head. “I would have seen the posters. I was searching everywhere for Venus. I might even have come down this block asking people.”
“So she wasn’t abused?”
“Of course not,” I scoffed.
“I don’t know,” Donatella said to the windshield. She rubbed the side of her nose.
“You don’t believe me?” I said, glancing at her. The corner of her mouth was twitching upward, something it did whenever she was nervous.
“No, I do,” she said, and gave me a smile that turned into a wince. “But, what are you going to do?”
I itched my thigh. I didn’t know.
“But I should react,” I said. “I need to at least know for sure that it’s her.”
The statement hung in the air, and no one picked it up. It seemed to defeat itself.
“Maybe take his advice,” Donatella said. “Some things you should spare yourself.”
I didn’t want to take that advice, but over the next week, I needed to avoid talking to Blorenge. Because of the looming threat of a promotion, I tried, with little success, to disappear from his attention. I dodged him in the hallways. Coming into the building in the morning, though, he smiled at me. He repeated how much fun he’d had with me and Donatella. “What a hoot!” he said.
“Even with the coffee spill?” I asked, trying not to sound hopeful.
“You went out with a bang!” he said.
I cringed in despair.
It wasn’t until Wednesday lunch that I decided to tell any of the other teachers about the appearance of Venus. Mr. Hucko, Ms. Green, and I all sat in the teacher’s lounge. We were the few teachers who didn’t flee the building at lunchtime. I hadn’t talked to Mr. Hucko much since discovering his perfidy of recommending me for Lead Teacher, but I supposed I couldn’t begrudge him that. He was simply trying to avoid the promotion himself, preserve his own free time like anyone else. Today he wore a Hawaiian shirt and pleated khakis and leaned against the counter. He was using the microwave, and he stood there with a plastic spoon in his hand.
“Do we get paid on Friday?” Ms. Green said idly.
I nodded, spooning out the dregs of my terrible cup of chili.
“Yeah,” I said. “Regardless, I hope this Friday is better than last Saturday.” I put the bait out there, waiting for a response.
“Saturdays are the only good days anymore,” Mr. Hucko said. He sucked some sauce off his fork loudly.
Ms. Green nodded. “What did you do last Saturday?” she asked me. She opened a large Tupperware of plain celery.
“I had to go to—” I started. Mr. Hucko turned on the garbage disposal in the middle of my sentence, so no one could hear me. He flipped the switch off.
I opened my mouth again, but Ms. Green stopped mid-bite to slam down her Tupperware. “My celery’s expired,” said in disgust, and got up to carry the offending stalks to the trash can.
I closed my mouth and thought for a minute. I reformed the question in my mind. Other teachers only paid attention when I talked about a student.
“I have a question for you two,” I said.
“Mm?” Mr. Hucko said around his spoon.
“When you’re talking to a student,” I said, “and you’re supposed to ask them a question that you think might have an unpleasant answer, do you ask it?”
“What question?” Mr. Hucko said.
“It depends,” Ms. Green said, now swivelling around toward me, half her celery already dumped out.
Mr. Hucko put his finger up. “For instance,” he said, “never ask if their dad is coming to pick them up.”
“Oof,” Ms. Green said.
Anyone who worked one-on-one with high school students knew that often without meaning to, a student would reveal a detail about their home-life that would trouble you for days. On first hearing it, you wanted to dig further or offer some kind of solution, but the further you dug, the more gnarled and intractable the problem was revealed to be. Discovering the details seldom helped. Much of the time, the best help you could offer was a brief, eight-hour window without trauma, to know what not to address, what not to probe for, not out of coldness or callousness, but so the student could have a chance, briefly, to forget.
“You’re like an archaeologist, talking to students,” Mr. Hucko said, with an officious slurp. “You need to know most of what you’re going to find before you dig for it.”
“Is that what archaeologists say?” I said.
“Depends on the teacher, too,” Ms. Green said. “How much bad news you can take on.”
“Know your threshold,” Mr. Hucko said.
“Ms. Stephenson last semester,” Ms. Green said, noisily dumping the rest of the expired celery into the garbage, “walked out the front door in October.”
“I thought that was about the piss canvas,” Mr. Hucko said.
“That’s what she wanted you to think,” Ms. Green said.
“Wow,” Mr. Hucko said.
“But she was my first dog,” I said quietly.
The two of them paused for a second, confused. Mr. Hucko cocked his head.
Ms. Green glanced at her watch. “Three more hours,” she said. Mr. Hucko sighed, and they both returned to their classrooms.
I almost forgot about my meeting with Mr. Blorenge. On my off period, I met with him in his office. He motioned for me to sit and began a long recap of the position and its duties: weekly spreadsheets to make for each student, behavioral modification conferences to attend, coming in early, staying late, and writing and distributing memos. A wrinkle formed between his eyebrows. I wilted in my seat.
“It sounds like a lot,” I said.
“Yes,” Mr. Blorenge nodded, serious. “But it’s nothing I think you can’t handle, Mr. Nasypany. From the work you’ve done here, the recommendation from Mr. Hucko, and,” smiling and shaking his head in amazement, “the sheer care and empathy you showed me and your lovely lady friend in our recent conversation…”
I castigated myself mentally for my error. Also pondered the term lady friend.
“I think you’re more than qualified. And of course, we wouldn’t want someone spinning their wheels here. This is a place for advancement, as in any other career…place.”
“Certainly,” I said. Seeing the implicit threat beneath the surface, the offer closing in, I tried a lie. “I have heard so many impressive things about the other applicant, though, from Ms. Green.”
I imagined the fallout I would have with her once she heard I’d made this up.
“To be honest, Mr. Nasypany,” he said, leaning back in his chair now. “After our evening this past weekend, I thought to myself, as I sat ensconced in courtesy, awash in kindness, ‘Now, these! These are people I want in my life.’”
For a second, I thought I saw him tear up. Then he shook his head.
“This is off the record,” he said in a stage whisper. “But that other candidate I mentioned at the meeting?”
I nodded expectantly.
“There was never another candidate,” he whispered. And he burst out with laughter, wheezing and roaring, slapping the top of his desk. I joined in, forcing laughs out of my mouth, trying to transform my despair, but it sounded like only panicked barks and yips that I hoped he couldn’t quite distinguish.
When I arrived home, Donatella was standing in front of the couch, drinking a La Croix in front of the TV. Sheets of baffling high school algebra littered the coffee table, blooming in swirls of red pen. I couldn’t tell if she hadn’t yet sat down, or if she had sprung to her feet at some point out of excitement.
Kimo, his goofy face all tongue, hurried up to me, and I scratched his ears. He was still here, I thought. I took my lunchbox to the kitchen to unpack it.
Sighing, I came out to watch with Donatella, pulling Kimo up with me on the couch.
“How’d the interview go?” she asked at the next commercial.
“He liked us,” I said. “He offered me the new position.”
“What?” she said excitedly, turning the TV off altogether. “Is that good? Are we happy? Isn’t that a raise?”
“A little,” I said, to all three.
Donatella whooped and turned off the TV. “Here’s to spilled coffee,” she said lightly.
She pumped me for the details. I did my best to act celebratory. Inside I did feel a small contagious buzz, reverberating quickly. The excitement made my previous fear and dread seem entirely bygone, departed, and somehow dubious. I now doubted its existence. Had I ever really dreaded this promotion, or had that been a brief fickle mood? Seeing the outward signs of joy that this decision had produced—Donatella’s quick grin and hug, her abundant swearing, her demand that we go now to buy a bottle of champagne—made it seem delusional to think I was afraid. What did I know? This bubbling outside world, was it any less real than my inner quibbles? Wasn’t it more real? Was it truly worth trashing all this to examine my most candid thoughts? I didn’t know. I wanted champagne.
On the way to get cash from the bedroom, I heard Donatella shout out something urgent.
“I have something to go with it, too,” she said, coming back into the room, smiling even more broadly. She held up a giant bag of flavored popcorn.
“Who’s that from, Katie?” I said, opening my wallet.
“No,” Donatella said. “A new student. From Hyde, actually. Ursula Ullmann. Do you know her?”
I froze but kept my eyes down, thumbing through my wallet. Of course I knew Ursula, now that I heard the name, our piss-canvas vandal from last semester. Ursula had caused Ms. Stephenson’s departure. The vandalism was the most memorable detail of her behavioral problems, but it had been joined by rampant defiance, swearing at her teachers, and threatening another student. Some teachers might want to know, to watch out for her. On the other hand, it was certainly possible that Ursula would behave differently in a different environment, I thought. Donatella had told me to take Mr. Blorenge’s advice, and this was my chance. I could repurpose his gift for Donatella: to spare her.
I smiled and said, “I didn’t work with her much.”
That was enough. We both hoped that trouble kept at bay stayed at bay. Why not test the worth of the unexamined? Look at gifts, look at each other, but not too close. This was the age when we thought, for a while longer, that we could avoid discomfort. Holding hands and laughing, we bought and drank the champagne in a rush. I kissed Donatella and cheered the liquor store clerk. We careened home through rolling flurries. Together, red and warm and foolish, we fell asleep in a tangle. Yet low in the room as I drifted off, I could hear the sound of the snow plows coming through.
James Butler-Gruett has published fiction, poetry, and book reviews in Entropy, the Cardiff Review, and Yes, Poetry, among others. He recently earned his MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. Find him on Twitter @etinarcadia3go.
Photo from Wikipedia Commons.