Don’t Shoot!

April 24th, 2012

Don't ShootHis fingers fumbled with the batches of student papers he had spread on his desk, in his haste to alphabetize them by classes, get a rubber band around each set, and pack them in his briefcase.He wanted to get out of that office as quickly as he could and get home, where it was safe.

This was a genuine first.After all these years, one of those disconnected females had actually threatened to kill herself if she didn’t get a passing grade.She was bluffing, of course, but she had certainly put on a good act—and he didn’t want to be around for any kind of sequel.

He hated confrontations like this, avoided them if he could, but there were always a few at the end of every semester.He really knew better than to grade papers in the office during final exam week.Students he’d seen so seldom the last two months he’d forgotten what they looked like would show up, trying to salvage a grade at the eleventh hour with a whole range of bizarre arguments, but seldom one he hadn’t heard many times before, over the years he’d been teaching English literature.

He had had no trouble recognizing this particular girl, however.By the middle of the semester she had distinguished herself, with an almost ostentatious pride, it seemed, by flaunting her cavalier attitude toward the American literature course she was taking, smiling archly at her two sorority sisters as she breezed into the room ten minutes late, striking a tragic pose as she showed them her lower score on a quiz, feigning wide‑eyed innocence as she admitted, in the middle of some point she was making in the class discussion, that she hadn’t even read the Edgar Allan Poe story being discussed, or laughing out of all proportion when they were reading The Scarlet Letter and one of the boys told the old joke about how Hester got her A.

Yes, he recognized her very well.Still, given the end‑of‑the‑semester syndrome, he wasn’t especially surprised when she had come in, less than an hour ago, excessively contrite, to “talk about” her grade.He had heard that she was majoring in theatre, if one could think of her as “majoring” in anything, so had braced himself for a more dramatic performance than most.

She had begun by talking about how well she had always done in English—before this course—a standard opening, and how a failing grade might jeopardize her membership in her sorority, where she was chairman of the scholarship committee. He thought he remembered glancing at her transcript earlier in the semester, but was careful not to say anything.Then she had shifted to how her parents were threatening to cut off all financial support if her grades didn’t improve, which might mean that she’d have to drop out of school.He had said that he was sorry about that—wondering if he was.

He immediately had occasion to be, for even that much of a positive response had seemed to provoke renewed energy in her attack.Her big blue eyes had gotten wider than he would have thought possible, and he had been afraid she was going to cry. He particularly hated it when delinquent girls cried.But she didn’t.She just leaned forward and overwhelmed him with words, telling him about all her plans for the future, plans that would be ruined if she had to leave college.What would she do?Life just wouldn’t be worth living.Then, after a pregnant pause, she had dropped the bombshell.She said that, if she failed the course, she was seriously contemplating suicide, that she even had a pistol right there in her purse.Did he want to see it?

He had jumped right out of his chair in assuring her that he did not, and, surprised at his own anxiety, with clumsy, stumbling phrases about the amount of work he had at the end of the semester, and how grades had a way of taking care of themselves, had taken her by the elbow and shooed her out of the office just as quickly as he could.

Still, he couldn’t get that last image of her face, as he was closing the office door, out of his mind.She did look desperate.In less than ten minutes he had packed up his papers and was ready to leave for home.He was afraid that she might come back, and perhaps threaten to kill him!And she might really have a pistol in her purse.He wasn’t sure just what he had seen in those eyes.

He saw the door to the women’s rest room close as he turned the corner and started down that hall to the stairs.Then, just as he was passing that rest room door, he heard the shot.The thought flickered through his head, “I can’t go in here,” even as he impulsively pushed open the door and went in.“Oh, my God!” he gasped.

There she was, sprawled on the white tile floor, her blonde hair making strange patterns against the fantastic spatters of blood.He had never noticed how long it was.A small revolver, with a disproportionately long barrel, like the .22 target pistol a friend of his had had clear back in high school, was on the floor next to her open hand.It seemed to still be smoking.

“Better get the doctor . . . probably too late . . . should I try to carry her to his office? . . . better not move her . . .” ran through his head.

He was always helpless in an emergency, especially if someone was hurt—most especially if there was blood.He wished his wife were there; she was good at handling such things.

“I wonder where she shot herself . . . and how seriously.I never would have thought . . . over a ridiculous grade?”He noticed that he was talking out loud to himself, as he did when there was no one else in the room.He began to look at the girl on the floor a little more closely.

Overcoming a strong impulse to get someone else to do it, he stooped to turn her over, to see if he could tell where she was shot.He was surprised to find her body tensely rigid, when he had expected it to be limp.And how about that blood?

Then he heard the giggling.It was coming from the toilet booths, more than one of them.The girl on the floor began to shake.Unable to control herself any longer, she burst out laughing.She rolled over and sat up, being careful not to get any of the catsup, or whatever it was, on her new sweater.The other two girls, the sorority sisters from the American literature class, were peeking out from the booths they were hiding in, laughing loudly now.

He found himself looking at his own image in the big mirror that covered the wall over the sinks, with the three girls as a comic chorus in the background.He noticed that his mouth was hanging open, and closed it.Then he turned to go.

The girl was still sitting on the floor, with the pistol in her hand now, but not, he noticed with relief, pointed at him.She stopped laughing long enough to say, “I couldn’t resist it, Professor Mather.You’re always so prim and proper, like those ‘godly magistrates’ in those Hawthorne stories. When the other girls bet me that I could never get you to come into the women’s rest room, I had to think of something drastic if I wanted to win the bet.”  

Then, just before he let the rest room door close behind him, she added.“You don’t need to worry about my grade.Really.I don’t care what I get.”

As he pedaled home on his bicycle, he saw that picture in the mirror again in his mind’s eye, very vividly.Then he began to laugh.He supposed he would no doubt be giving that little blonde a passing grade in the course.Grades did have a way of taking care of themselves.She might really be a pretty good theatre major.And he liked the reference to the “godly magistrates.”

But now he wasn’t so sure about those other two girls.

* * *

Published in  Inscape, Fall 1983

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