Self Knowledge

Richard Bausch

That morning Allan Meltzer had an asthma attack and was taken to the hospital. It disrupted the class, and Miss Porter, the teacher, felt herself edge toward panic. Her husband was in Seattle trying to save things. A once-big man in the airline industry, was Jack—gone a lot these days, even when home: money troubles, drinking through the evenings to calm down. She too. They drank separately, and he’d been abusive on occasion. They were going to pieces.

A wonderful word—cordials. She’d drink cordials in the nights, bouncing around alone in the house. She felt no bitterness, considered herself a fighter. They were in serious debt, living on cash only, bills piling up. This month’s cash was gone. The house was empty of cordiality. She had no appetite, to speak of , and nothing to drink. A terrible morning.

But she got herself u and out to work. And Allan had the asthma attack.

Pure terror. No one had ever expressed how physical thirsts could get, how deep it wend down into the soul.

Some days, Allan Meltzer’s parent’s prevailed on her to give the boy a ride home. They lived a hundred yards from her, on the other side of a strand of sycamores. Allan was a quiet kid. She had heard the boy’s loud father outside, calling him “stupid.” Names like that. She would think about Allen’s big eyes in class, how he stared. She’d tried being especially kind—this kid with asthma, allergies, a fear of others. The other children were murderously perceptive, and pecked at him.

All this lent urgency—and guilt—to the fact that he was gone to the hospital with asthma. Urgency because she feared for him; guilt because she planned to use his absence. No sense lying to herself.

She had such an awful dread in her.

When the day ended—the long, damned day—she got in her car and started for the hospital, planning to check on Allan. The Meltzers would be there, both of them. They saw her as a kindly childless woman, Miss Porter, who had nurtured the schoolchildren—a whole generation. Well, it was true. And they trusted her. She had a key to their house, for those times she took the boy home.

No, she would not deceive herself. A drink was necessary before she faced the Meltzers.

She drove to their house and let herself in. Mr. Meltzer kept only whiskey. She ransacked their kitchen looking for it. Vaguely, she resolved to fix everything when she got to a level, when she could think straight again, out of this shaking. It was simple. She was contending with something that had come up on her and surprised her.

She drank most of the bottle, slowly and painfully at first, but then with more ease, gulping it, getting calm. She wasn’t a bad woman. She loved those kids, loved everyone. She’d always carried herself with dignity, and never complained. She had a smile and a kind word for everybody. Once, she and Jack had made love on the roof of a Holiday Inn, while fireworks went off in another part of the city where she went to college. On their fifth anniversary they had pretended to be strangers in a hotel bar, and gone racing to their room on the sixth floor, laughing, filled with an illicit-feeling hunger for each other.

Now she did what she could with the kitchen, reeling. Her own crashing-down fall startled her, as if it were someone else. “Jack?” she said. Oh, yes—Jack. Her once-friend and lover, a world away. But all would be well. She could believe it now. She went out into the yard, looked at the trees, the late afternoon sun pouring through with breezes, life’s light and breath. The great wide world. She felt good. She felt quite reasonable. Nothing out of order. Life would provide.

She started across the span of grass leading to the trees. It was confusing, where home was. She sat down in the grass, then lay back. When they returned, the Meltzers would see. They would know everything. She would have to find some way to explain, show them the necessity. “Honesty is what we owe each other.” She’d always told the children that, hadn’t she? She had lived by it. Hadn’t she? “Be true, my darlings,” she had said. “Always, always tell the truth. Even to yourself.” That was what she had said. She was Miss Porter. That was what she was known for.