Declension

By Nicholas Alexander Hayes

Clumps of wet snow mat the black collar of my houndstooth coat. I clomp my red galoshes in front of the West Campus’s foyer. Gray slush splatters. It stains the coat’s white and black pattern.

My breath pulls the ember of a cigarette. Soft snow scratching against brick almost drowns out the crisp burning sound. I dash the cherry against the wall. Delicate snowflakes melt and smear the black marks I leave. I return my plastic lighter to my satchel, letting my bare knuckles brush a pair of pink knit gloves.

The temperature rises little when I walk into the building. The Cuban security guard adjusts his puffy ski jacket. His shoulders slump as he scratches in a book of Sudoku with a number 2 pencil. He glances at me. A quick smile reveals a line of stitches above his lip. I assume these are to repair the injury from his teeth slicing through his lips when students beat him for crossing through the wrong territory on his way home. The bruises on his face have yellowed.

I check my cell phone. Seven minutes before class. I take a quick detour through the faculty office. Office seems grandiose — it is a room with two desks and a Gateway computer. The desk with the PC is reserved for the secretary who leaves an hour before the evening classes. She should stay until fifteen minutes into the session. But the director leaves at a quarter to five, and the receptionist leaves shortly after to make sure she is out of the neighborhood before it gets dark. Pigeonholes line the wall opposite the director’s office.

After coming to campus from an eight-hour shift downtown, the ache in my knees and fingers makes me hope to hear a few shots between six to nine. At which point, I will tell my students that I am tired and don’t want to wait for the bus. One of the working mothers, Araceli, will drive me home in her beater. This has become a typical night.

She steers with her left hand, so I can lock my fingers with hers. When she hits a red light, she recoils. But when she parks in front of my apartment, she asks if she can use my bathroom. While she steels her courage, I pour a couple of shots of FEW Standard Issue Gin. She downs her shot and sticks out her tongue.

“Strong?” I ask.

“Strong,” she replies.

Her soft face crashes into mine. Moist lips and sodden tongues writhe around. I endure the tedium until she realizes she has to go relieve her husband of the children. Once alone, I nurse my gin to cleanse her stale flavor from my palate. Then I grade for a few hours before going to bed. I always have to look rested for my day job, which subsidizes my nights as a part-time instructor.

Abandoning my thoughts, I get my bearings in the office. I fish a folded roster from the pigeonhole labeled Jessika. Even though we have talked multiple times, the secretary won’t change it. She can’t imagine that my name has a C and not a K. I walk out of the side door so that I can avoid talking to the battered security guard.

I look at my cell phone. It’s three past six. Only four of my ten students are in the classroom. They are crammed into small desks — plastic chairs with immovable arms fixed to the side. I slip out of my damp coat and sit on the edge of the blocky metal desk in front of the classroom.

“Hola, guys.”

“Good evening, teacher.” They chatter as I fish the folder with tonight’s quiz from my bag.

“Do you have your homework?”

Their conversation ceases. No one makes eye contact. I know there is no use in pushing the issue. I smooth the front pleat of my black skirt as I stand. I count out four copies of the quiz. “We’ll take twenty minutes for tonight’s quiz? Like last week, remember you should have nothing out except your quiz and a pen.”

“But teacher,” one of the women whines, “I only have a pencil.”

“You can use a pencil.”

“Don’t you have a pen you can borrow me?”

I take a chewed ballpoint from my coat and hand it to her. Her face purses and she sets it in the small trough at the head of her desk. She takes her pencil in her small hand. It hovers above the page, not moving for minutes.

Twenty minutes will be long enough to let any stragglers make it in before I start to lecture. I sit in the old office chair behind the teacher’s desk. Metal springs yell out in inanimate ache. After fifteen minutes, the door swings open. Isaac, the only male student in the class, kicks the door again so it doesn’t swing back as he swaggers in. He’s wearing a black down jacket and a pair of jeans that ride low, showing a three-inch band of his black boxers. “What’s everybody doing?”

“They’re taking tonight’s quiz.”

He plops into a desk in the back of the classroom and sprawls out. After a couple of minutes, he gets up and returns to the front of the classroom. He comes around the desk, so he can face me. He angles his pelvis so that it aligns with my face.

I can feel the coldness clinging to his denim.

“Jessica, I didn’t get no quiz,” he says. He licks his lower lip and leans close to me so that he can stare at me. His dark brown eyes narrow. He places his hand on my knee and rubs the pads of his fingers on my lower thigh.

With unintended flourish, I sweep a copy of the quiz up off my desk. He seizes it, crumpling one side.

“Thanks.” He bites his lower lip, slowly removing his hand. His gait back to his seat is slow and cocksure. He wads the quiz up and sets it in the seat next to him. He slumps over his desk and starts to sleep.

The other students speak quietly. “Maestra es puta,” is the only snippet I understand.

“Remember no talking,” I say, not looking at the four pudgy women.

I let the class take thirty minutes. Only half the class has shown up, which is decent attendance. Frequently I only have three students.

I fetch my pen from the student’s desk. I scratch P’s next to each of their names on the roster. I take out another batch of copies I made at my day job. It is a list of activities on prepositions. I scratch some sentences on the green chalkboard with one of the dozen quarter-inch pieces of chalk that have been piled in the corner.

I explain that the objects of prepositional phrases can’t be the subjects of sentences. I then ask the students to identify the prepositional phrases in the first example on the board. Isaac shifts his weight and continues to sleep. The women mutter to themselves.

“Teacher, can’t you write better?”

“Teacher, I don’t get it.”

I start to go through my lecture again, peppering it with, “Claro?” The women pointedly respond, “Yes.” As I proceed through my notes, the door opens again. A slight woman slips in. She wears a pink windbreaker and a lime green polar fleece scarf. She pushes her ebony mane off her face and slinks into the student desk closest to the door. She rubs her red hands. They are chapped, and the knuckles have started to bleed.

I point to one of the women. “Tell Araceli what we’ve been talking about.” She begins speaking quietly and rapidly.

I scratch a T next to Araceli’s name on the roster and fill in the spaces next to the other names with A’s. “Ok, in the sentence ‘The man on the sidewalk jogs’ what is the prepositional phrase?”

Everyone is quiet. I ask again.

“The man,” says Isaac with a tired confidence.

“No.”

I repeat my lecture a third time. When I finish, I look at my cell phone. It is seven forty-six. “Ok, let’s go on break. Be back at eight.”

“But teacher that’s not fifteen minutes. We get fifteen minutes for break.”

“Fine. Be back at eight o’ one.”

The women file out. Isaac plants his head on the desk.

I rush the roster to the office. I absentmindedly try the handle, but it is, of course, locked. I slide the roster underneath the door. I walk to the bathroom. I don’t see any feet underneath the stalls, so I relax. I look in the mirror. My lips look pale and my eyes are puffy. I retrieve a dark lipstick from my purse and gently reapply some color. My fingers rest against the hot pink gloves. Holes have been worn into the fingers. I take the gloves out and hold them to my nose: human musk and cheap perfume. I feel so alone.

In the stall behind me, a set of feet is lowered to the floor. A strong liquid stream rings against the porcelain.

I thrust the gloves back into my handbag.

The toilet flushes, and Araceli stands behind me waiting for the sink. I take my eyeliner out and apply it.

She gets antsy.

“Araceli, I am worried about your progress. You may fail.”

“Teacher, my husband is busy at work, and I have my kids. You said I could help you with other things.”

“I can only judge what you do in class.”

“Please, teacher.” She grabs my blouse with her raw hands.

I pull away and smooth my clothes. “Araceli, there is nothing else to say. I only care about your schoolwork.” I start to leave, but I stop. I pull the gloves from my purse and toss them to her. “You forgot these.”

When I return to the classroom, the four women have returned. They all have white Styrofoam cups of soda. Isaac has left, taking all of his stuff. His crumpled quiz remains in the seat next to where he was. Araceli creeps in. Her eyes are red. She dabs an errant tear with her finger, letting the pink fibers of her gloves soak it up.

I take a deep breath and once again try to explain that some things can never be subjects.


Nicholas Alexander Hayes lives in Chicago, IL. He is the author of NIV: 39 & 27 and Between. He has an MFA in creative writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and he is currently completing an MA in Sociology at DePaul University. He writes about a wide range of topics including ’60s gay pulp fiction, the Miss Rheingold beauty competition, depictions of masculinity on Tumblr, and whatever piece of pop cultural detritus catches his eye at the moment.