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  • A Good Breath
  • Michael Byers (bio)

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Photo by Charles Miles

[End Page 50]

Oh, he was a lousy fifth grade teacher, certainly worse than any of his own teachers had been with the possible exception of Mrs. Davis, she of the pear bottom and mustache, and he having volunteered himself to teach only because he had no skills and no direction after college aside from the fanciful notion of going home to Seattle and somehow working for a newspaper, which was never anything but an idea, and because his girlfriend Antonia was signing up, and because he sometimes enjoyed her company and she enjoyed his, and he had no better opportunities. Then by the middle of his second year he and Antonia were barely tolerating one another and living with their blond housemate Chrissy Cox in the town of Fort Destry, Texas, all of them working at José [End Page 51] Cultivar Elementary School three miles down the split-lane highway along the Destry River, which was sludgy and full of rotting reeds, the school sprawled at the edge of Fort Destry itself beneath a platoon of power lines that hummed as though full of marching demons. The flag was raised and saluted every morning, they unconstitutionally prayed before all-school assemblies, they ate lunch in the stinking lunchmeat lunchroom with the students, they worked through the math folders and the required reading, they made their way. He was not helping the world in any obvious sense aside from providing cheap instruction to a set of children who needed something better, something more dedicated, but who thanks to budgetary realities were getting him, Paul Lake.

He had actually enjoyed the previous year, when he and Antonia had been posted in the far northern Panhandle where they had lived in what now seemed bliss in an ancient clapboard house on the edge of a stream near the mouth of a canyon, from whose echoing halls they could hear coyotes all night as the wind moved through the mesquite and the radio picked up stations from Denver and St. Louis and the stars were legendary. Then that post had ended and they had been transferred here. He could not wait to be done and gone, and Antonia had already been admitted to a linguistics program in Chicago and he had decided to head home to Seattle and to prepare his own PhD applications in classics, he had to do something with his life that was more satisfying than this, and at the same time he was preparing, in fact, to go to the clinic and to get some probably bad news about what had been happening to him lately, which was this terrible shortness of breath that had begun plaguing him in January, on a run, when he had suddenly been unable to breathe, as though someone had inserted a barrier in his chest so he could get air into only the top third or so of his lungs. He told nobody about this for weeks and weeks until finally he confessed to Antonia, who observed him collapsed on the couch and said, “Well, go see the doctor, dummy.”

But he didn’t, because he didn’t want to know what was wrong with him, because he was afraid of the news, he had never been to doctors growing up (his father a doctor) and also because he was sure that he was going to be told he was dying, that he had a mass pressing on his sternum from behind, that he would have to call his mother and father and tell them so, and his brother, and that he was going to learn that just when he hoped to be done with what now appeared a mistaken period of his life, teaching elementary school, living with Antonia, being in Fort [End Page 52] Destry, Texas, he was going to be told that he was done before he’d even really started his life, that he was almost out of time.

A list of his failures as a teacher was no doubt being kept somewhere in a file folder and some set of administrators...


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