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LiquorLand should have been a safe space, a student-free zone. Instead, Arlo Hunt, weed-reeking 10th grader, slouched at the checkout counter. His back faced Joan, but the tangled hair, the slumped shoulders, and the Megadeth patch meant it could only be Arlo, Joan’s worst student.
The bottles clinked in her basket. A confession of Russian vodka and Florida orange juice. Her guilty vacation, the only one she could afford, a tonic for the end of summer break.
Arlo concentrated on a Snickers, rolling it like a cigar. He still hadn’t seen her.
Was he reading the ingredients?
As far as Joan knew, he’d never read anything for her literature class. He’d failed stupendously. Cutting class, napping when he showed, extending the alphabet of choice on quizzes, writing his own answers to circle: “F: Because Walt Whitman was a queero.”
“Some students are assholes,” the biology teacher, Dan, had told Joan in her first week of school. She’d flinched when he said it. Not anymore. Though in Joan’s hierarchy of student assholes, Arlo was king. He called her Joanie. He’d stuffed a decapitated mouse in her coat pocket. She couldn’t prove it was Arlo, but she’d seen it in his eyes. In his dreadful smirk.
She’d replace the bottles and make a break for it. Running into students at the supermarket or Cineplex was weird enough, the students unfailingly open-mouthed and wide-eyed, as if teachers lived dormant outside class, just plugged into rechargeable compartments where they didn’t need to eat or see movies. In these moments, shame was a time machine, especially with the girls—who roamed in packs, as they always had. Joan was 16 again, back in “hell school,” lonely, tongue-tied, unsure what to do with her hands, imagining the post-mortem giggles that would dissect her awkwardness.
Now in LiquorLand? With Arlo Hunt?
He had his phone out, the Snickers vanished, probably filched. Slumped and scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, the one skill every student excelled at. “Homo phonus,” Dan called them.
God, if he films me here.
There were stories. Teachers on the town, phone-filmed drunk, dancing horribly. Unflattering candid pics shot at pools or gyms, images posted and shared. The teachers’ humiliations enshrined in a forever-cloud.
Forget the reshelving. She’d drop her basket. Split. Avoid Arlo and his peach-fuzzed smirk. But it was too late. He’d turned and spotted her, flashed his amber-toothed smile, blue eyes dazzling under greasy bangs.
“Arlo? What a surprise.”
In a one-on-one conference she’d tried to connect over his name: “How cool you’re named after Arlo Guthrie,” till Arlo said, “Who?” and that his father believed you shouldn’t name a kid till you shouted their potential handle, insured it carried and didn’t wear out your voice.
“Arl-O! Arl-O! Arl-O!” Arlo had bellowed in the empty classroom. After, the two of them sat still as Stratego pieces across her desk. That had been that.
Arlo ogled her basket. “Screwdriver party?”
Joan shrugged in a way she imagined cool girls did, though her party was a party of one, screwing herself to the couch, binge-watching crap.
“Decompression,” she said. Decomposition she thought, suddenly remembering how Arlo once malapropped the word in an essay. Or had he?
Joan paid and scooped her change. The bottles clinked in their paper bag. She nodded to Arlo as she exited, digging for car keys.
He followed her to the parking lot.
Joan’s casual key hunt became a frantic dig past hand sanitizer and secret cigarettes, till she discovered them (at last!) under a crumpled Kleenex. She jammed the keys in the door, but he was at her shoulder, reaching, touching her back.
Her gut tilting, Joan whirled, keys weaponized in her fist, though Arlo didn’t notice. His eyes were downcast, suddenly shy. He was close enough to smell sweat and cigarettes.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “about something I read in your class.”
“Oh,” Joan said, more shocked than if he’d stabbed her.
Arlo still gazed down, as if his memory sprung from the lot’s oil stains and bent butts. “Something like,” he murmured, “dreams don’t work unless you do.”
He squinted up, eyes searching hers, and Joan saw he was sincere. The words had cut him. They’d left their holy scar, the way only literature can.
“That’s great, Arlo. You follow those dreams.”
“Definitely, Miss Porter. I will. And hey, could you maybe buy me a six-pack?”
And she did. Why not? She took his crumpled dollars and procured beer. After all, summer was at its end for the assholes and Arlos of the world, too. All of them back to grades and degrading. And they’d shared a moment. Not in the classroom, where Arlo was forever on the back foot, but in his natural habitat of concrete and sodium arc lamps, of gum wrappers and failed lottery scratchers. They’d connected over the power of language, though she couldn’t place the quote.
Arlo straightaway popped a can and thrust it at Joan, right in the LiquorLand lot. She foresaw headlines: Teacher Contributes to Delinquency of Minor; Teacher Seduces Stoner Student, tabloid scandals, her life landmined. Still, she took it and hunkered next to him on the curb, though the dreams quote nagged her.
Was it Langston Hughes? Maya Angelou?
She searched her head even as she savoured the icy beer, the evanescent feeling of being lawless and cool, this silent correlation with Arlo.
Then she found it in her classroom. It hung above and behind her head, pinned to the wall: an inspirational poster that predated her – literary as a fortune cookie – a quote over snow-capped mountains. The word dreams filled the clouds.
She laughed, a sharp bark in the night. Arlo grinned and popped a second beer.
His easy manner with a cigarette, his crossed boots on the concrete, he could still be anything, Joan thought. Or at least something. What had she been at his age?
Later, at home, two screwdrivers deep, inspired, she’d write her first short story in years, “Insights at LiquorLand.”
Now, Joan raised her beer.
“To dreams,” she said, “and where they take us.”
They toasted. Two cans touching in the August night.
Michael Harris Cohen
Michael Harris Cohen’s work is published or forthcoming in various places including Conjunctions, On Spec, Catapult’s Tiny Crimes, F(r)iction, The Dark Magazine and numerous anthologies. He’s won several writing contests and is a recipient of a Fulbright grant and fellowships from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, The Künstlerdorf Schöppingen Foundation, Jentel, The Djerassi Foundation, The Blue Mountain Center, and OMI International Arts Center. His first book, The Eyes, was published by the once marvelous but now defunct Mixer Publishing. His forthcoming story collection, Effects Vary, will be published by Off Limits Press in 2022. He lives with his wife and daughters in Sofia and teaches at the American University in Bulgaria.