THREE weeks after Jason's death his father got hold of me on the phone. "Ms. Penrose? You were Jason's last teacher." It sounded like an accusation.
I wrapped the phone cord around my hand, wishing I had let the answering machine pick up. "I'm so sorry," I said, hoping my apology would cover both Jason's death and my own lousy teaching. I stared down at the Turkish rug, and for the first time I noticed little white nubs among the blue and green threads, as if it were aging as I watched.
"I'm calling to see if he might've said something," said Jason's father, whose name was Bishop. "Or done something. To indicate his state of mind." Bishop made a gulping sound -- holding back a sob? Taking a slug of Scotch? Jason was their only child. His death had been ruled a suicide.
I sank down onto the Turkish rug like a tent collapsing. "He seemed fine to me," I said, which wasn't entirely true. Jason, a redheaded, rubbery-looking boy with knobby knees and black glasses, had been a student in my poetry-writing class, part of a college camp for gifted kids. "I knew him for such a short time," I said, stretching out flat on my back. "I'm probably not the best person to ask."
"Did he write about anything, you know ... ?"
I watched the blades of the ceiling fan go around and around, and thought about the antiques store in New Orleans where my ex-husband, Grant, and I had bought the rug, a dim room full of low, ponderous ceiling fans and ornate mirrors. At that same shop Grant secretly bought a full-length mirror I'd been admiring and had it shipped home to Indiana to surprise me. Out of some stupid newlywed parsimoniousness I sent it back.
"They all write about death," I said to Bishop. "It's junior high." I cringed at the flipness of my words.
"The thing is," Bishop said, "he never showed us any of his poems. He must've thrown them all away." I heard the gulping sound again. It sounded like a chicken making a single cluck.
"I really can't remember what he wrote," I said, and then quickly added, "or the writing of any of my students. I've had so many." That wasn't entirely true either. I remembered a poem written by a girl named Matisse about some passengers in a plane crash slowly drifting down toward the fields of southern Indiana. And Heather's poem about getting poison ivy. And my favorite, Kip's poem about God flunking his driver's test. But the unpleasant fact was that Jason hadn't written a single poem during the entire two weeks of my class. He'd played on the Internet during class writing time, and I had let him do it, telling myself that the camp was voluntary, that no one received grades, and that I wasn't going to make both our lives miserable. Already I was spending six hours a day, glorious June days, shut up in a classroom with fifteen eighth-graders, something I did every summer to supplement my income from community-college teaching. Usually the kids were eager and uninhibited and talented enough to make the whole thing worthwhile, but I'd had a few resisters over the years, and Jason was by far the most stubborn. Perhaps I sensed that his refusal to write was simply a strand in some larger tangle, and I certainly didn't want to start groping around, exposing things neither one of us was equipped to deal with. In any case, his failure to produce poems reflected badly on both of us, and I hoped no one else would find out.
Rain began to patter against the sliding glass door, and I turned my head from the fan to watch the rain. My girls were still at the swimming pool. "I've got two daughters," I said. "One's Jason's age. I worry about them all the time."
"Is anything coming back to you?" Bishop asked. "I need to know if he left any clues." According to a newspaper article, which quoted various friends and relatives, Jason had a fascination with death, with what a person would feel like right before he died. His parents had caught him playing at hanging himself before, the article said. But this time he'd electrocuted himself by dropping a blow dryer into his bathtub. I thought, Playing at hanging himself? Why didn't his idiot parents commit him the first time? I wondered if maybe, since he was in the gifted-and-talented program at school, they thought he was just acting like a curious little genius.
I remembered Jason on the last night of camp, standing on one leg, storklike, at the front of the auditorium full of eighth-graders--his intense voice, his poise, his lively pouf of red hair. "He read a poem at the Evening of Sharing and did a great job," I told his father. "It was our group poem; each student wrote two lines and passed the work on to the next person. But I couldn't tell you which lines were his." I'd asked Jason to read the class poem because I felt guilty about our mutual failure, and his dramatic performance at the Evening of Sharing relieved some of my guilt. I'd begun looking forward to teaching again the next summer, anticipating more success all around.
"What about his own poems?" Bishop asked. "What were they about?"
The rain was coming down harder, at an angle. The sheets I'd hung out on the deck railing to dry were getting drenched. "You're mental," Kip had said to Jason once, in front of the entire class. Kip had twisted his flashy turquoise ring, leaning over Jason's desk. "He's just drawing pictures of the same little rat, over and over again." Jason had stared fiercely at his notebook, somebody in the back of the room had sniggered, and I had gone on talking about line breaks.
"I think I remember one poem," I said. The lie was like one of my daughters' Super Balls careening through the house. I could only watch anxiously to see where the next bounce would take it.
"Yes?" Bishop said.
"It was about God flunking his driver's test."
"Could I see this poem?" Bishop said. "Could I get a copy of it?" I'd read in the paper that Bishop was a lawyer.
"I don't have it," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Maybe you can rewrite it."
"I don't think so," I said. "I really only remember the last two lines." Kip's poem was about an Italian man who was driving through the countryside and happened to see a chapel so beautiful it caused him to have a sudden religious conversion. Euphoric, he took his hands off the wheel and said, "God, will you drive?" and his car immediately crashed. "God flunked his driver's test." So the poem was about death after all -- suicide, even -- but since it was laughing at death, I hadn't noticed.
"Do the best you can," Bishop said. "We could come by tonight to pick it up."
"Not tonight," I said. If Jason's mother was as pushy as his father, I thought, no wonder the boy wanted out. And, of course, I hadn't been any comfort to him either. I chastised myself with a nasty little movie in my head -- Jason hanging back again after all the other students left class so that he could walk out with me, refusing to talk to me or look at me directly, answering all my questions with a shrug. There I was, coaxing him along, trying to conceal my irritation, saying dumb, cheery things -- "Maybe you'll be inspired tomorrow!" And there he was, frowning and finally turning away, scuffing off to the dorms alone. He electrocuted himself two weeks after camp ended.