Graduation, Chris Gavaler

Farewell, mr. garcia

Erin Schalk

On a Sunday afternoon, my mother and I, along with a handful of parents and children, were finally let back inside St. Clara Academy to help with cleanup. Mom, being the school’s part-time P.E. teacher, sprinted down the hall to scour the gym. I offered to fix up the eighth grade classroom, figuring it was better to face the room now rather than on Monday, so I could deal with any reactions I might have while alone. 

I turned the classroom’s doorknob, gripping the burnished metal and my shallow breath. The room seemed almost normal inside—except for the smell. St. Clare’s was old and prone to foul odors, but after months of barely seeing human life, mold had burrowed into the grout of each tile and brick. I pinched my nose and walked to the back wall of the classroom, which was lined with four large windows almost as tall as the wall itself. At the beginning of school last fall, each window was treated with a blue-green coating that was supposed to prevent intense sunlight from coming in. Now it was the end of April, and scales had peeled off and fallen onto the window ledges. Shoving up each bottom pane, I wafted the funk outside with an ancient oscillating floor fan that shuddered on its stand. Then I picked up the broom and swept, whisking the cyan flakes from the window into a dustpan, which I emptied by banging into the wastebasket. 

I sprayed almost an entire bottle of lemon-scented Lysol around the room with the hopes of clearing out the smell. No luck. The chemical cloud only left me hanging with my head out the window, coughing and trying to gulp down mouthfuls of crisp air and now the room stank like citrusy penicillin. 

According to my mother, the police and detectives had come inside multiple times while the building remained on lockdown, fingerprinting almost every square inch of the school, leaving a sooty trail in their wake. I had imagined the top of each desk covered in a layer of powdery charcoal fingerprinting dust. Instead, I was greeted with desktops that sparkled like a freshly scrubbed kitchen in a Clorox commercial. A couple of days ago, the chief detective gave the custodian the green light to go inside to do a quick preliminary cleaning.

I walked over to my desk. Located in the far back right corner, it was farthest from the classroom door and the least likely to have received a thorough scrubbing. I ran my hand along the faux formica wood grain. Like the rest, it boasted a perfect gloss across its oat-colored top. I crouched down, peering into the desk’s open front. Everything seemed to be there, sitting undisturbed and dust-free. I began pulling out the contents one-by-one, just to double-check. Single, spiral-bound notebooks for math, English, and science. A dollar store sketchbook that I had completely forgotten about. Packages of standard #2 pencils, erasable pens, art pencils and charcoals. A 24-pack of almost professional-quality illustration markers that was a Christmas gift from my aunt in  Chicago. A scatter of erasers and glue sticks. One pair of scissors. I turned each item over in my hands, peering into every crevice. There wasn’t a trace. Of anything. 

The fan’s lopsided stand skittered against the floor, snapping me back to the present.   I collected my notebooks, sketchbook and coveted markers, tucking them away in my backpack for safekeeping. Now, only my locker was left. I slipped into the hallway. The eighth grade lockers were right outside the classroom door, adjacent to the school’s front entrance. Two of the fluorescent ceiling lights had burned out, and a third was flickering wildly like a strobe light. 

Had it always been this badly lit? 

My gaze darted from left to right, then back again. 

A soft, staccato patter of footsteps came from the other end of the hall. My heartbeat throbbed in my ears. I fumbled for the spare set of car keys in my pocket and tried to pull up my tennis shoes from the tiled floor, but my legs had frozen. The footsteps were becoming louder and clearer, and a voice shouted, “Nora!” 

My mother strode around the corner of the opposite end of the hallway, a dust rag dangling from her side pocket. The dove gray fabric of her exercise shorts was splattered with a thick layer of charcoal-colored grime. Unlike the classroom, the gym must still be filled with fingerprinting dust. 

She stopped immediately as we locked eyes. She was standing under one of the working overhead lights, and its glare threw her features into sharp relief. Even from almost twenty feet away, bruise-like circles weighed heavily on her eyes. 

“How are you doing over there?” she called. The tone of her voice was naturally commanding, and her words carried effortlessly. Before I could answer, Mom resumed her brisk stride. Even in her forties, she had enough physical energy to rival some of the fittest twenty-somethings. She stepped next to me and pulled off her work bandana. She shook out her sweaty hair, which was cropped into a no-nonsense pixie cut. Then she gripped my shoulders, tugged my slumping back upward, and peered over my forehead into the classroom. “It looks good in there, doesn’t it?” she commented. 

I nodded. 

“Listen, it’s almost lunch time. Why don’t you come down to the gym with the rest of us? There’s lots of sandwiches, and Amber’s mom baked your favorite coconut macaroons.” 

My face must have betrayed a hope that had nothing to do with homemade cookies because Mom quickly countered, “Amber isn’t here—not yet—but Lori said she might come later with her older sister.” Mom clasped my shoulders a little tighter. “Never mind, though. C’mon, join me.” 

“In a few minutes,” I said. “I think the classroom’s almost ready, but I haven’t looked through my locker yet.” 

Mom paused, pressing her lips together until they curled in toward her teeth. Her gray eyes searched my own. Then, she gave a close-mouthed smile that brought clusters of crow’s feet to the creases of her eyes. “Alright, but join us soon—okay?”  

“Once I finish here,” I replied absentmindedly as I turned back to face the lockers. 

“I’m counting on you.” Mom gently tugged on my ponytail, then resumed her jog down the hall, calling over her shoulder, “Mmm… the food smells great over here. Better get some before it’s gone!”

I respected the fact that Mom had this ability to be completely immersed in the present moment and to truly relish each part of the physical world around her. Still, why couldn’t she understand that I had other things on my mind right now? 

I ran my hands over the cobalt metal of the lockers and peered into the upper vents, unsure of what I expected to see. I strained to recall my lock combination, but once I touched my thumb and forefinger to the dial, my lock sprung open. I scanned the other nearby lockers. Each rested slightly ajar. It made sense since there was a list of each of our combinations in the front office. Still, locker searches hadn’t crossed my mind. 

 A rush of blood burned my face and pricked the tips of my ears when I glimpsed my Kotex box stashed in the back of the uppermost shelf.  

Which police officer or private investigator had rummaged through mine? 

I looped the open lock onto my backpack, pulling my heavy down winter coat from its hook. I didn’t need it now that it was almost May, although a scalpel-sharp chill still cut through many mornings. Finally, I could take home my snow boots. I had missed these the most. Snowfall had been uncharacteristically light at the end of January, so I had made the mistake of leaving my boots overnight, never guessing that they would be lost for months behind locked doors and crime scene tape. 

I ran my hands along the inside walls, letting the locker’s cold metal numb the surface of my fingertips. Just like my desk, it looked like everything was exactly as I had left it. There wasn’t even much dust—regular or otherwise. 

My held breath escaped my body like the rush of air from a punctured balloon. I wasn’t sure why I had hoped my desk or locker would somehow—magically, I guess—hold a critical piece of evidence. As far as anyone knew, that kind of evidence didn’t even exist. 

I kicked off my shoes and tugged on my snow boots, tying them so tightly that strands of the woven laces began to fray. I crumpled my coat into a makeshift cushion, sat down on the hall floor, and stared out the glass of the entrance doors to the parking lot outside. 

That day, I had been standing at the very same spot by the entrance doors. My little brother Adam was waiting with me. I had won the school spelling bee weeks before, which was not an especially impressive feat, considering that St. Clare’s had about eighty students and only went as high as eighth grade. It was the day of the regional competition in Chicago, so I was leaving school a couple of hours early to participate. Adam had grown to appreciate the benefits of having me as an older sister: my academic tournaments sometimes got him out of class. Since it was a Wednesday afternoon and not one of Mom’s days to teach gym, we peered through the doors into the icy parking lot, waiting for her to pick us up.

The faint sound of a telephone ring wafted from the front office. Moments later, Principal O’Connor emerged from the office’s double doors and lightly tapped the back of my shoulder. 

“Where are you two going?” she asked, the pitch of her voice rising.  

I paused for a moment, stunned. Principal O’Connor led the school’s academics league every Wednesday afternoon. Her coaching was one of the main reasons why I was even remotely prepared to compete in the regional tournament. “To the spelling bee,” I explained. 

Principal O’Connor’s face was semi-translucent, her tissue paper skin revealing webs of blue veins that intersected at her temples. She was a tiny woman—not quite five feet tall—with a frame as delicate and hollow as a hummingbird’s. Side-by-side with Adam, she had wrists that were almost the same circumference as his. But at this moment, she seemed far more fragile than I’d seen her before, like a glass ornament about to fall from a high shelf. Her body trembled violently, and her breath rasped at the base of her throat.

Adam’s eyes grew wider with each passing second. He was silent—and he was never silent. 

“Principal O’Connor, what’s wrong?” I asked. 

She was relatively young—about the same age as Mom. She wasn’t having a heart attack, was she? I clasped her forearm in a feeble attempt to steady her frail body. “Will you be back soon?” she demanded. Her eyes didn’t shift from mine. Not even to blink. 

“We’ll be back tomorrow,” I said. 

The tension in Ms. O’Connor’s body seemed to release.

I let go of her arm, and it fell slack at her side. “Do you need help? Mom’s coming and—

“Mom’s here now,” Adam whispered, pointing to the gray sedan that had just pulled into the turnaround. 

Ms. O’Connor pushed open the door for us, letting in a stinging gust of wind that brought tears springing into my eyes. From what I remember of that moment, she never stopped looking at me, first staring into my eyes and then past them. 

“You need to go now,” she responded. The tone of her voice was as unwavering as stone. Pushing her hands into the space between our shoulder blades, she breathed a  ‘goodbye’ before ushering us out into the cold. 

The police said the shooting had happened in the hallway. 

Erin Schalk is a visual artist, writer, and educator who lives in the greater Los Angeles area.  She graduated with her MFA in Studio from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2017, and she has exhibited her art throughout the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom and in Japan.  Schalk’s artwork and writing have also been published in a variety of literary journals.  Today, Schalk teaches at a non-profit organization where she creates accessible visual art and creative writing programs for adults with visual impairments.