“The sleep of reason breeds monsters.”
— Francisco Goya
I am a thinking man. These are some thoughts.
My day starts early, two hours before sunrise. From bed to bathroom to kitchen — shit, shower, shave, cereal, coffee, toast — then off to school. The routine is always the same and has been so for decades. I teach; therefore, I am.
A soggy, foggy, wintry Friday morning in the desert. She’d been waiting near the darkened doorway to my classroom before anyone but the janitor had entered the chilly building.
“Oh, Mr. F, shit,” she said, breaking into gobs of tears, grabbing and clinging to me as a shipwrecked survivor might a first fistful of sand on a remote island.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I replied gently. “It’s OK.”
Sometimes helping a stressed high school kid is as simple as reverting to grade school strategies. A calm soothing voice can create a comfort zone similar to the shell of her recently shed preadolescent childhood.
“He says I have two choices,” she sniffed, wiping her eyes on my necktie.
“And those are?”
“To get an abortion.”
“Or,” she said, falling into waves of sobbing again, “he will kill me, chop me into pieces and throw them where no one will ever find them.”
I waited for her to let all the sadness out.
“I really hate when that happens,” I said.
“Yeah,” she forced a weak laugh through her tears. “I really hate when that happens, too.”
Amy had caught my eye on the first day of school, four months prior to this, hidden — slouched down, quiet, invisible — in a desk at the back corner of my World History class. On an introductory questionnaire, I had asked students what their goals might be after finishing high school. Most kids answered that they were planning on joining the military, going to cosmetology school or becoming chefs.
“To be left alone,” Amy wrote.
When the bell rang and class was dismissed, she had left behind on her desk droplets of blood sparkling like crimson glitter in the florescent lighting. I knew this much about Amy: She was 14-years-old, isolated and bleeding.
Two weeks later, during my lecture about Adolf Hitler rising to power in Nazi Germany and Goya’s quote about the sleep of reason, I noticed her impaling a web of flesh between her left thumb and forefinger, using a sharp geometry compass needle. More Amy blood. Without disturbing the flow of my lesson, I scribbled a note for her to see me after class.
“I know something about you, Amy,” I cautiously said when we were alone. “You’re a young woman in pain. Problem is, I don’t know how deep it goes. Will you show me your left arm?”
Hardly making a sound she slowly slid up her sleeve. What she revealed were not the superficial marks of a typical teenage cutter looking for a little sympathy in a cruel world because her boyfriend had just dumped her. Instead, lined up on the tender inside flesh of her frail arm, from wrist to pit, were the self-inflicted wounds of someone trying to slay, by repeated slashing, some deeply buried, hellish agony. A few of the cuts had healed into thick, gruesome scars; others, still moist and tender, oozed infection between picked-over scabs.
In a weak voice she spoke.
“I really like your class, Mr. Franken. Mr. Goya painted about the horrible things in life, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did,” I said, surprised by her erudition.
“I have his picture I cut from a magazine. It’s a father biting off his child’s head.”
“’Saturn Devouring His Son’?”
“Yeah, that one,” she said. “I think Mr. Goya painted my life 200 years ago.”
“How so, Amy?”
“I feel like a baby turtle on the beach. You know, that just hatched. I’m running hard as I can for the water. Something scary is behind me. I can feel its shadow getting bigger and bigger. I try to run faster than my legs can go. But the water just seems to get farther and farther away,” she said.
The room fell awkwardly still. A tardy bell rang for the last class of the day. It was my solitary preparation period. Amy hadn’t budged. In the glaring florescence she appeared unusually thin. Greasy strips of hair hung down and hid her face’s pale skeletal features, which themselves masked a natural beauty beneath the brittleness. After a long silence she spoke again.
“I hate bullies,” she said, and started whimpering as if she were tiny and alone and dying on a beach far away. She wept for 20 minutes. Finally, I spoke. I told her the only important thing there was to know about me.
“I hate bullies, too,” I said, softly.
Her weeping abruptly stopped. Somewhere a clock was ticking. She looked at me through the matted hair covering her eyes. Then she told me her story.
There was a man named Dred, whom she feared.
“He’s got all these tattoos and scars and only one hand,” she’d said.
“Yeah, he says he lost the other one in the war. But mama says he never was in no damn army or war.”
Amy also said Dred wore dreadlocks. He was her mom’s boyfriend, pimp and drug supplier. And he had started in on Amy when she was 12. He’d said he was grooming her for the big time — high rollers visiting top casinos, men who wanted, and would pay handsomely for, young girls who could suck a dick properly.
She showed me dozens of old cigarette burns dotting the soles of her feet. Each small circular scar represented, according to Dred she’d said, a bad blowjob given him by the 12- and 13-year-old Amy-in-training. To cope with the searing pain, she would be given drugs, mostly cocaine and heroin.
“After one full month of no cigarette burns, Dred said I was ready to go to work. Right after my 14th birthday, he turned me out to the high rollers,” she stated flatly. “He said he would kill me if I ever told anyone about any of this. He said he’d kill my mom too, chop her into pieces and ditch them where they could never be found. I hate him.
And that was Amy’s story. The Vegas equation: Cash plus vulnerable girl equals sexual fantasy fulfilled.
I told Amy I was obligated by law to report this abuse to her counselor, who would notify proper authorities. But she begged me not to turn her in because her mother would be dismembered into coyote food. Besides, she added, she would deny the whole story if anyone asked.
“I could lose my job if I don’t report it,” I said.
“Please, Mr. F? There’s got to be a better way. Miss Hampton is creepy.”
Actually, Amy had a point. Penelope Hampton, the girls’ counselor, often came to work dressed in T-shirts and socks promoting Disneyland. Miss Hampton’s deceased father had been a Harvard professor. He wanted his little girl to become a Mouseketeer before she reached adolescence. Apparently Penelope never made the grade, and her father died unexpectedly when she was in elementary school. I had once quizzed her about the logic of wearing Disney duds to our blue-collar, some might say ghetto, high school.
“Everybody loves Mickey Mouse,” Miss Hampton said. “Our students lead very difficult lives, Mr. Franken. My Disney flair puts children at ease in a stressful world.”
Coincidentally, a year before Amy enrolled in my history class Miss Hampton had been alerted by a science teacher about another student being chronically raped by a stepfather. Rather than contacting the police, as she should have done, Miss Hampton phoned the victimized student’s rapist-stepfather to ask him what he thought he was doing “to this poor, innocent girl.” By the following day the student and her entire family had disappeared from Vegas under the cover of darkness, never to be heard from again.
Yeah, Amy had a good point. Miss Hampton was creepy. So, in place of reporting the situation to the inept counselor, I decided to take Amy under my own tutorial wing.
For the next several months, we’d spent lots of time together before and after school. A regular rinsing in rubbing alcohol cleaned up the infected wounds on her arms. She gradually replaced that downtrodden disheveled appearance with a scrubbed, fresh-faced look. She had become an attractive young lady. Curly, light brown hair accentuated her green eyes with a halo of youthful innocence. Amy’s grades leapt from F’s to A’s. She could do math problems way beyond my capabilities. But it was her love of science — or more specifically, ecology — that greased the wheels to her intellectual wagon.
“Did you know, Mr. F, there are only 25,000 polar bears remaining in the world?” she might ask. “The human race is the real bully with all its pollution. Do you realize that? At the current rate of commercial fishing, in 50 years there will be no more fish left in all the oceans.”
“So I hear,” I would say. Often, when the late afternoons slowly thickened into darkness outside the classroom window, she would stall as long as possible the inevitability of having to go home to get ready for her frightful night job.
“Tell me the story one more time about how to deal with bullies, Mr. F. Tell me about your friend Sammy, please?”
“Only under the promise you’ll repeat it to no one,” I’d say.
“Cross my heart,” she’d reply.
Like Amy, I’d been an only child. My parents were violent alcoholics. They had loved to get rowdy, get nasty and get bloody. My mother always hit my father with something first — a pan, a fist, a hammer. That would launch him into fits of rage, full of rants about the lost opportunities of his youth. A monstrous, hulking man, he’d played football at Ohio State. Before finishing college, though, he had been drafted to go fight Hitler in Europe. Wounded there by a French prostitute, who’d shot him in the pecker after a drinking binge, he came home from the war, a local laughing stock, to a desk job at the post office. The woman he married, my eventual mother, loved to drink and ridicule him. They both viewed me as the biggest mistake of their lives. I, too, endured my share of broken bones, swollen eyes and bloodletting.
I had a friend in grade school named Sammy. One October night, in 1960, when we were in third grade, we sneaked out of our houses to go to a political rally downtown. We wanted to get away from our respective drunken parents.
“If I hear you went to that parade downtown, I’m gonna whip the dog shit out of you, boy, when you get home!” my father threatened as I left the house. “Last thing this country needs is some Catholic cocksucker running it!”
The visiting presidential candidate for whom the parade was being held was John F. Kennedy.
At Sammy’s house his father was slapping his mother around something fierce. She kept begging for him to stop. Sammy had a 4-year-old sister his dad slapped around, too.
A tiny, timid woman, his mom was a waitress at the local truck stop, “the greasy spoon” people called it, on the one state road passing through town. His father, a wee rodent of a man, had a pinched, angry face. For months at a time he would take off and disappear only to pop up unpredictably, every now and again, to live off “the little woman’s” meager wages for a while — and to beat her, Sammy and his sister into dog-like obedience.
“I’m gonna kill that fucker someday,” Sammy had said to me as he slammed the front door on our way out to the political rally.
I remember the rest of that night vividly. The wind was bone-chilling. At the rally, the passing presidential candidate eagerly stretched out to reach my hand and clasp it firmly. His nostrils exhaled steam, like a workhorse’s in winter.
“Thank you for coming out,” he said on our first handshake. The crowd surrounding his limousine convertible was thick as syrup. After releasing his hand, I slogged through the sluggish flow of people to overtake the motorcade and catch him again.
“Thank you,” he said at our second handshake. His teeth flashed the smile of all smiles. At that, I bucked against the crowd one more time to wriggle up front and stretch out my hand.
“I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?” he asked when we pressed flesh a third and final time.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Well, thanks again,” he’d said. “I hope the voters share your enthusiasm next month.” Meanwhile, his motorcade was inching past me, blending into the throng of onlookers and, beyond that, into history.
Again, it was October, 1960; the candidate, John F. Kennedy. Sammy and I were 9 years old. The rally was at Buttercup Stadium in Butterfield, Ohio, a small industrial town of 13,000 people.
“I think the guy’s cool,” Sammy said about JFK, after the parade passed by. He huffed into his fists to warm them up. Except for the two of us, the street outside the football stadium had been abandoned, littered with confetti and cardboard signs and discarded campaign buttons, all promising hope for humanity.
“Yeah, I shook the guy’s hand a bunch,” I replied.
But three years later, in October of 1963, almost to the day of JFK’s political rally in Butterfield, my friend Sammy, at the age of 12 and now in the sixth grade, finally did shoot and, as he had promised, kill his father. Then he put the shotgun into his own mouth and pulled the trigger. Only a few weeks before this tragic event, Sammy had been reading books about Adolf Hitler. He would often talk of the failed assassination attempts on Hitler’s life.
“To kill a bully takes good planning,” Sammy used to say.
The autumn night when he’d shot his father, he had called me on the phone. I heard his mother screaming in the background.
“Sammy! Sammy! Why?!” she wailed.
Cool and collected, Sammy told me he’d hidden a stash of cash he had made from hustling truckers by playing pool at the truck stop where his mother worked. He had wanted me to have a third of it and his mom and sister to get the rest.
“What did it feel like to shoot your dad?” I asked him.
“Pretty fuckin’ good,” he said.
“I think I did something wrong. I hear police cars coming. I called you to say goodbye,” he said.
Without warning, a powerful blast exploded in my ear. His mother started shrieking hysterically. Sammy had become his own judge, jury and executioner.
He had nailed the bully, though.
At that time, the murder-suicide had been the biggest tragedy in Butterfield in decades. One month later, however, in November of 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Following the three days of stunned silence gripping America after the president’s death, Sammy and his shotgun and dad were swiftly forgotten in Butterfield, Ohio.
Shortly thereafter, my own life took a turn. Under the onslaught of alcoholism, my family had fallen apart and disintegrated. I was placed into a religious foster home where some guy named Vernon believed sexual molestation was a tenet of the teachings of Jesus. So I ran away and hit the streets. But soon I got arrested for stealing a car. At age 13, they sent me to reform school. In my two years there, three kids committed suicide and the reformatory was shut down by the state. At 15, I ended up back in Butterfield, homeless, couch-surfing at friends’ homes. I attended high school faithfully and landed a real job pumping gas. After graduation, I headed for college to become a teacher. Sometimes the best thing you can do with bullies is to outlast them.
When I finished telling Amy this tale, she remained motionless and pensive. It had grown pitch black outside.
“I’m pregnant,” she said. “Dred’s the father. He doesn’t know yet. I’m telling him tonight.”
She stood up and, without looking back, walked out of the school into the darkness.
The next morning was the soggy, foggy, wintry Friday when Amy had been waiting near the dimly lit doorway to my classroom, before anyone but the janitor had entered the chilly building.
“Oh, Mr. F, shit,” she’d said, breaking into tears.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I replied. “It’s OK.”
“He says I have only two choices,” she sniffed.
“And those are?”
“To get an abortion.”
“Or,” she said, “he will kill me, chop me into pieces and throw them where no one will ever find them.”
“I really hate when that happens.”
“Yeah,” she forced a weak laugh through her tears. “I really hate when that happens, too.”
“Do you still have the gun I gave you?” I asked.
“Yeah, at home.”
“Better carry it with you everywhere now,” I said. “You sure you don’t want me to report Dred to the authorities?”
“What good would that do?” she asked. “This is Vegas. You can’t escape the fate.”
“You need anything else?”
“Yeah, what’s my grade in your class?”
“An A-plus, Amy.”
“Thanks, Mr. F. I never thought I’d like history so much.”
As she walked out of the classroom that Friday morning, my own pulse rate speeded up. Good murder takes good planning. All the pieces were starting to fall into place. But planning aside, killing also needs good timing. After trudging through a full day of teaching hormonally challenged students — plus listening to teachers in the faculty lounge bemoan their lousy lives — and dodging the laser death stares of fascist administrators — the last bell of the day eventually rang. Being the weekend, most students and staff left the building quickly. My time to tweak the real trigger had come at last.
“Miss Hampton?” I said when she answered the phone. ‘“This is Mr. Franken. I need to bring your attention to a student who has been sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend and is now pregnant. The girl came to me in tears today.”
“Oh, that’s horrible,” said Penelope Hampton, probably sitting in her office with a Minnie Mouse hat on. “What’s her name and home phone number? I’ll get right on it.”
I knew I could trust Penelope.
After hanging up, I rushed home, slipped into comfortable clothing, including a smoking jacket, lit a very fine Cuban cigar, opened a bottle of premium whiskey, then sat back and waited.
Such anxious moments of anticipation before bloodshed have become like Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving all rolled into one happy event for me, one perfect holiday. If my calculations proved correct, after Miss Hampton phoned him, Amy’s pimp — the dreaded Dred in his dreadlocks — had raced home to beat her mother into pulp. By the time Amy arrived home from school, Dred’s libido and amygdala should have been whirling and writhing in a danse macabre, the tandem of his anger and sexuality unstoppable at that point. Amy would have few options.
Finally my phone rang, two hours after Amy had left school that afternoon. My heart began racing as fast as Sammy’s must have done on that fatal October night in 1963 in Butterfield, Ohio.
Charles Manson, a monster made in America, once said: “I’ve never killed anyone. I don’t need to kill anyone. I think it. I have it in my head.”
“Hello,” I said, answering the phone.
“Mr. Phwangen?” Amy slurred badly. “I’m all bweet up. Miff Hamphton phoned Dwed and tolt him ephrything.”
In the background was delicious screeching: “What the fuck! What the fuck!”
“Amy? Where are your mother and Dred?” I asked.
“Momma dead. Dwed kilt her,” she mumbled. “And I shot Dwed.”
I instructed Amy to put Dred on the phone. There were fumbling sounds at the other end of the line.
“What the fuck!” Dred shouted into the phone. “Who this? I’m shot! Call me some help, man, please! I’m shot bad!”
“Dred,” I said calmly.
“Man, who this? Help me, please!”
“Dred, listen. This is Amy’s history teacher. I just want you to know how well she has been doing in my class this year.”
“What the —”
“She’s getting an A. And her behavior has been excellent.”
“Man, I’m bleeding here!”
“Dred, listen,” I repeated. “I’m going to get you some help. But first I want you to look at Amy and ask her to help you, OK?”
“What?! Amy?! Amy?! I need help! I’m bleeding! Please!”
I envisioned Amy looking down on him, green eyes aglow with the last of their innocence, gun in her hand.
“Very good, Dred,” I said. “Now give the phone back to Amy.”
More clumsy fumbling.
“Yeth, Mr. Phwangen? Now wha?” she asked.
“It’s time, Amy, as we practiced on those targets in the desert. Time for Dred to stop his bullying.”
A moment passed. Then suddenly her pistol popped loudly. And Dred sweetly ceased.
“Now wha, Mr. Phwangen?”
“Time for the hard part, Amy. Remember my friend Sammy?”
“Yeth,” she said.
“You remember what he did to himself after he shot his dad?”
“All the polar bears are dying, too, right?”
“What’s killing the polar bears?”
“Too many pweeple,” she answered feebly.
“Amy, if you have the courage, you can score a three-pointer for the polar bears tonight. Pull the trigger one more time, and somewhere a polar bear will smile down upon you.”
“Really, kiddo,” I said.
“I hope I did good, Mr. Phwangen,” she said.
Across the phone connection the final shot sounded like a huge piece of popcorn exploding in a microwave oven. Judge. Jury. Executioner. I heard her cellphone and gun clunk to the floor. And there I sat in that rare moment of life I have always valued so much, immersed in the sublime silence immediately following a violent death. Then I savored the similar times that I’ve enjoyed at other schools where I have taught. I poured another drink while listening to that familiar tranquility at the other end of the line.
Kids — like baby tortoises — scurry in desperation toward the mysterious ocean of adulthood. Some make it, some don’t. Predators are everywhere.
At school the next Monday morning, in the midst of the emotion and chaos surrounding Amy’s tragedy, a shy, new student recently up from Mexico was being enrolled into my class.
“Jose, this is Mr. Franken. He will be your history teacher,” the boys’ counselor said, introducing us.
“Meester Frankenteacher?” Jose asked naively in a thick accent.
“Yeah, something like that, Jose,” I said. “Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas.”
That afternoon, police officer Brigham Smith quizzed me about Amy.
“She just brought all this to you on Friday?” he asked.
“Out of the blue,” I said.
“And you —”
“Notified Miss Hampton, the girls’ counselor, as required by law,” I said.
“You did the right thing,” he said. “What’s the world coming to, Franken? It wasn’t like this when we were kids.”
“It doesn’t seem so, sir,” I lied.
I am a thinking man. My days begin early, two hours before sunrise. From bed to bathroom to kitchen — shit, shower, shave, cereal, coffee, toast — then off to school. The routine is always the same, and has been so for decades. Happily, I teach; therefore, I am.