My mind was on Steinbeck; my foot was on a hand.
No one responded, most definitely not the man on the floor.
I had wanted to escape the headmaster’s annual interminable address to the student body. Neither his ideas nor his words had changed or improved over the years I’d heard them, and when I reached the limits of my endurance, I fabricated an excuse.
Put more precisely, I lied. “An emergency,” I’d whispered as I made my way out of the auditorium.
A new wise saying: Be careful what you fabricate, because I turned the corner and there he lay, a certifiable emergency, crumpled and inert at the foot of the wide marble stairs, a thin halo of blood around his head.
He was face-up, looking surprised, as well he might be, given his position and the fact that his right cheek was indented, as if it had buckled.
My mind finally activated. I pulled out my cell phone to dial for help, although the man seemed well beyond any.
I saw movement out of the side of my eye, and turned quickly, fearing another shock, but it was only Mrs. Wiggins, the school’s most recent—and again unsuccessful—attempt to find a competent secretary. She tiptoed out of the office, not exactly rushing to my rescue. In fact, she approached so slowly that she was close to moving backward. She stopped altogether when she was a few feet from me.
I reached the 911 operator. “This is Amanda Pepper,” I said, “a teacher at Philly Prep.” I gave our address and the situation and ended the call.
Mrs. Wiggins remained as immobile as the man at the bottom of the stairs. “What—what—“ she said, shaking her head as if to negate the evidence of her eyes. “What—“
“Please—go to the auditorium. Tell Dr. Havermeyer to keep everybody there. Explain what’s happened.”
“Who—do you know who that is?” Her voice was a hoarse whisper.
“Better hurry. The assembly’s nearly over.”
She shook her head again. Maybe she had a degenerative disease. “I’m not supposed to leave the office.” She sounded the way a rabbit would, if it could talk. “I’m not even sure I should be out here, because what if the phone—“
“Mrs. Wiggins, this is an emergency.” You had to spell things out for this woman, basic, primitive things, and although our recent rapid turnover of school secretaries was not a good situation, I couldn’t help but hope it would continue, and that the Wiggins era was nearing its end. “I think this man’s dead,” I said as patiently as I could manage. “A lot of people are about to burst in here—police, paramedics, I don’t know who else. The last thing anybody wants would be several hundred adolescents converging on this spot.”
“Police? But—why? Is this a crime? Do you—did you see something? Somebody?”
“They have to be called for accidents, too.” I waited. So did she. “Go, Mrs. Wiggins. Hurry!” Even Havermeyer’s seemingly endless drone, “Musings on the Possibilities of Life During and After High School,” ultimately concluded. “Hurry!” I said. “Do you want the students to see this?”
“Well, maybe you could—I could stay, and you could go tell—“
“Mrs. Wiggins! You’re his secretary.” I didn’t care if that made sense. I had gone AWOL from assembly and didn’t want to underline that fact. Besides, she was such a nervous, distracted creature that if I left her as sentry, she’d amble around the poor man and inadvertently ruin any evidence there might be.
She blinked, nodded, and moved toward the auditorium.
I searched for a pulse without disturbing the body. I wasn’t sure what I’d found, possibly only my own fingertips’ pulse, but he was still warm. I fumbled in my purse for a mirror to hold to his mouth. Meanwhile, I studied him, trying to figure out who he was and why he was at Philly Prep, let alone on the floor in this condition.
He was—or had been—an attractive enough middle-aged man. He had dark hair with the slightest threading of gray and regular strong features. He looked to be in his forties or early fifties, and seemed surprised to be found in such an undignified and awkward position, one leg bent to the side, the other heel still on the bottom step, his arms flung wide as if, coming down that expanse of staircase on his back, he’d tried to brace himself and failed. But the hands that failed had been well tended. No calluses that I could see, and the nails were buffed and clean.
His suit, rumpled and twisted as it was, nonetheless spoke of expensive fabric and expert tailoring, and his feet were shod in beautifully polished Italian-looking soft black leather.
How had he gotten in without attracting notice? It didn’t say much for school security, but aside from that, why would a man like this go upstairs? Everyone was obliged to be in the auditorium, so no one would have made an appointment with him for that hour. Maybe he was a parent who hadn’t been informed of the assembly or who misunderstood the time of an appointment with a teacher or counselor.
I could understand Mrs. Wiggins looking horrified by the man’s fall, but not her questions about who he was. She should have recognized him because he should have stopped at the office as the large sign by the front door requested. He looked like a man who followed the rules—at least, the easy ones.
Before I could find my mirror, the painful whine of a siren interrupted my search and speculations, and I gladly relinquished all further inquiries to the police and paramedics.
“Alive,” a paramedic said, and though they were already working at warp speed they upped the tempo, even while the officer in charge directed the forensic people to photograph the man and the area. Then he went over to stare down at the man as he was put on a gurney.
“I did it.” Mrs. Wiggins’ whisper startled me. “I did as you said. Dr. Havermeyer wasn’t happy about the situation, but he understood. You were right. He’s holding the assembly awhile longer.” She turned, frowning.
“Who is he?” I asked her.
“You’re asking me? Why?” Her eyes were coffee colored with, at the moment, the white showing all around them. “How could—why would you say such a—why would I?—what do you mean?”
She looked as if she might faint, but I didn’t take it to mean much because she looked like that a lot. Mrs. Wiggins was not a woman who delighted in surprise or change. I wondered, not for the first time, what Mr. Wiggins was like. “You’re the school secretary,” I said. “And visitors have to sign in. He’s a visitor, right?”
She paled. I watched her lips half-form syllables, then go slack again, so that only airy wordlessness emerged. There goes another job, she had to be thinking. Correctly, I hoped. We had metal scanners at the doorway, but did we need an actual guard at all hours? Even if the man had burst into the school and refused to make the slight right turn into the office to identify himself, Mrs. Wiggins would have seen him pass. The person at the desk could see the base of the staircase. If he’d refused to comply with the request to register, she could have—should have—called the police.
Unless, of course, Mrs. Wiggins—she had never offered a first name, and the more I knew her, the more I doubted that anyone had ever been on a first-name basis with her, including Mrs. Wiggins—unless Mrs. Wiggins hadn’t been at her desk when this man entered.
“Please,” she said. “I—I can’t lose this job. I’ve had hard times. I—don’t tell, please?” Her shapeless body compressed, grew wider and closer to the ground in a near-cringe, as if she expected me to hit her.
Or as if too many people already had hit her.
The “hard times” registered, but still, asking me to “not tell” sounded like we were in playschool. We were here as guardians of the students’ safety, and it was painfully obvious she’d failed to even say “yoo-hoo” to the stranger. “What is it I shouldn’t say? Who is it I shouldn’t tell? Why didn’t you sign him in?”
She looked pathetic, colorless, timid, and terrified, and I knew I should consider what evil forces had forged this pitiable creature. However, compassion sometimes seems too much of a psychic effort.
I wanted an answer. And maybe the right to get angry about that answer because whatever its first cause, her failure to stop the visitor—not precisely a world-shaking or difficult job—had potentially endangered the school.
“I just…I must…I wasn’t feeling well, and I had to…you know…he must have come in while I was…you know. In the ladies? You won’t tell, will you?”
There was no possible response except a sign and a headshake. I wouldn’t tell—but I wouldn’t have to. The police and the headmaster would ask her the hard questions directly.
So I stood at the side, listening—I hoped discreetly—even after the man had been rushed away and the crowd had thinned. I listened as the forensics guy walked up and down the staircase, taking pictures and making notes. The remaining officer did, in fact, ask Mrs. Wiggins what time the man had entered, and what he’d said his purpose was.
The secretary looked ever more pitiable. Rashlike patches erupted on her cheeks. Her shoulders grew rounder, her stance more like a whipped dog’s. She stammered, blushed, and shook her head. “I am so sorry,” she whispered. I saw the glint of moisture on her lashes.
To my disgust, I felt a frisson of compassion. She looked devastated. Normally, there’s a student assistant to cover for her if she has to leave for a moment. And normally, Dr. Havermeyer’s nearby as well. But during the Annual Address, the pitiable school secretary had been flying solo, and if nature had called loudly enough…
She wrung her hands, and she used every euphemism known to mankind for needing to use the ladies’ room.
The police didn’t seem overly concerned. Events appeared to be unfortunate, but not criminal, an apparent accident, and not an illogical one, as the staircase was not only made of marble, but long—actually two flights in one. Very showy, and perfectly designed as a grand family entryway when the school had begun its life as a pretentious private home. Built for the family’s servants back then, and the choice of most of the students and faculty these days, an ordinary, wooden normal-scale back staircase served the everyday needs of the building.
“And you found the victim?” the officer asked me. He identified himself as Owen Edwards. I knew I wasn’t supposed to have such thoughts at a time like this, but it nonetheless registered that he had TV-cop looks, not real-life cop looks. That I noticed this proves how shallow and frivoilous I am, but in truth, his chiseled features made the situation feel even more surreal. I had to control the urge to scan for hidden cameras.
Maybe I let my noticing go on for too long, but he started to look familiar. “Haven’t we met before?” I asked before I could censor myself.
Really wrong thing to say. He backed up as if he expected me to foam at the mouth.
I explained that I was engaged to C. K. Mackenzie, who’d retired from the force earlier in the year and who was now a full-time grad student in criminology, and that I’d been introduced to Officer Edwards at some police-associated function not that long ago. The iron-jawed mask relaxed into an actual smile. He took the time to make mild and unoriginal fun of a guy who’d been a homicide detective for years finally deciding to find out about crime, and I nodded and acted as if nobody else had ever made that joke, and then we both returned to our assigned roles.
I explained about literally stumbling over the man. “I don’t recognize him,” I said. “Doesn’t mean he couldn’t be somebody’s parent, but I’ve never seen him at a conference or open house here.”
“No students named Severin?”
“Not in any of my classes.” I looked over at Mrs. Wiggins. She would have access to the complete student list.
Her face was as blank as one with the normal complement of features can be.
“Mrs. Wiggins. Do you recognize the name Severin?” I asked.
“Why?” She looked at me, then at Owen Edwards, stymied, then back at me.
I tried to speak gently. Maybe she had a learning disability. “The student list—could you check it out for that last name? Maybe the list of applicants, too, if there is a list this early in the year.”
She slowly turned toward the office.
“She looks in shock,” Owen Edwards said. “Might want to keep an eye on her.”
“I’m afraid that’s her normal expression and level of responsiveness. So the man’s name is Severin?”
“Tomas Severin,” he said. “Ring any bells?”
A gasp from behind me. The name had rung for someone, though it had not tolled for me.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the gasper’s identity. Maurice Havermeyer, master of Important People’s Names, had broken free of his assembly. “Not one of the Severins!” He sounded as if he were having trouble catching his breath. Then he looked at me. “Singing,” he said.
“Excuse me?” The singing Severins? A show business family?
“I have the students singing the beloved classics.”
“Ah. Of course.” As if I was worried about which activity he’d selected to keep them confined. As if I might challenge his pedagogical choice. As if the students cared at this point—they were not only free of Havermeyer and his lecture, but they weren’t being asked to return to their classrooms, either. It didn’t get much better than that.
“That should amuse them,” he added.
Actually, it did get better than that, once you factored in Havermeyer’s musical taste. Given that music—who liked which group, which track, what type—was a near obsession among teens, a way of judging and ranking each other, an index of where one belonged on the social scale, and given that Havermeyer’s “beloved classics” were songs from operettas no one had staged in half a century, I was no longer sure anybody was at all amused.
“Is he—was he—“ the headmaster asked.
“He was alive,” the officer said. “Unconscious, but he still had a pulse. Possibly comatose. Can happen like that with sudden acceleration of the head.”
It sounded as if Severin’s head had bolted and raced downstairs on its own.
“He seems to have gone down headfirst,” Edwards said. “Back of head on the stairs. That’s a pretty sudden stop at the bottom.”
“But…” I didn’t finish my question about his cheek had come to be dented. Edwards wouldn’t have known its cause or said if he had.
Maurice Havermeyer shook his head. “Terrible if—tell me, did he have an h?”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Did he have an h in his Tomas? On his driver’s license?”
Owen Edwards regarded Maurice Havermeyer silently before he double-checked his notes. “No h.”
The headmaster sighed loudly, as if the lack of an h verified his words fears. “It’s the Tom Severin, then,” he said. “Ever since the first one came over without the h, they’ve kept the original spelling.”
“The first Tomas Severin arrived on these shores shortly before the Revolution. They are a most…one of Philadelphia’s finest families.” He came close to choking over the words. If there was one thing Maurice Havermeyer knew, it was who had money and position in the City of Brotherly, but not Egalitarian, Love. There was speculation that Who’s Who in Philly had been the subject of his dissertation for his offshore doctorate.
“Very low profile,” he continued. “They don’t parade their name around because they don’t have to. A behind-the-scenes kind of dynasty. Started with manufacturing things people need, but don’t notice. Nails, bolts…The company had their name for a long time, then it was S.M.F., as in Severin Metal Foundries. They were also S.C.I.—as in Severin Construction International. They were Alta—that means high you know—Publications…” He sighed and shook his head and his skin looked as if it had mummified since he entered the front hall.
“Why were?” I asked. “Why past tense?”
“In the eighties, Tomas Severin got involved with the Internet and online marketing quite profitably, and in the late nineties, right before the bubble burst, he sold the entire shebang. Some foreign country owns everything now. He, of course, made a new fortune.”
Officer Edwards was visibly impressed by my headmaster’s knowledge. Of course, he had no way of knowing that the lore of rich folk was all the man stored in his brain. Except, of course, for nonstop speculation as to how any of this information might affect him. Now, I could almost read thoughts lurching from one to another of his synapses, all of them lugging the same dire message.
One of the Severins had been badly hurt. He might not live. Therefore, the school staircase was in for a Big-time Lawsuit. And then—I could almost hear him pulling the thought through the narrow corridor of “How does this affect me?” until he reached the stuff of Havermeyerian nightmares: The school would close down. After all, what parent would keep a child in a school this unsafe? My headmaster’s face gave in to gravity, every part of it sagging, even his eyebrows.
Lost. Lost. The words nearly keened themselves, and ghostly echoes bounced off the marble staircase. Lost, lost. The man, the prestige, the child, the tuition, the endowment, the school.
When the officer and technicians were all gone, and classes were about to resume—not a prospect I relished—I returned to the auditorium. The music teacher, Veronica Wenda, a woman who always looked shocked at where her melodic dreams had led her, gamely poised her two hands in the position of a conductor and said, “And next, ‘Tea for Two,’ which was such a hit in No, No, Nanette.”
The students were beyond hooting and hissing. They were nearly as comatose as Mr. Severin had been. Lunch followed by Havermeyer followed by Operetta’s Greatest Hits combined with Indian summer had just about done them in.
I caught Veronica’s attention and whispered that it would be all right for students to return to their scheduled classes now. She nearly wept with relief.
After several more minutes of predictable delaying tactics and honest questions such as which class were they to go to, I shepherded my flock out and up to my classroom. The odds were heavily stacked against accomplishing anything resembling teaching, but if we could simply keep the peace until the day ended, I’d consider it a win.
My thoughts about Steinbeck, so dramatically interrupted by Tomas Severin, had concerned East of Eden, which the seniors had been reading and enjoying, despite their usual objections to long books. We’d had a fine and thoughtful discussion based on a quote from the novel:
“…I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror.”
I thought of that quote now, and the animated and heated debate we’d had about the meaning of evil, of what shaped a man and determined his kindness or malevolence. I’d been thinking about those words when I stumbled over Tomas Severin. Now, the words and idea belonged to him, and I considered the rest of the quote, which suggests that a person should choose his course of action so that his dying “brings no pleasure to the world.”
Maybe it be so, I said of the stranger.
We had moved on in class to another discussion based on the inequities between the Cain and Abel-like sons, and I’d assigned a nature-nurture essay, due today.
The official question had been whether people were born programmed to be the “good son,” whether who you became was a matter of luck and life events, or whether roles were assigned within the family and then became the person’s personality. Or, of course, all the above.
I’d have thought they would try to use the morning’s events as an excuse to talk about anything but the assignment. I would have understood. But the Steinbeck novel had hit a lot of hot buttons, which shouldn’t have surprised me given that we were a school designed for young adults who couldn’t function satisfactorily in the larger school system. These were kids who’d been in trouble in some way, hadn’t performed as desired, children who were not fulfilling their parents’ dreams and ambitions. They were more than ready to air their not very buried sense of being treated unfairly, or of being assigned—or thinking they were—the role as the family goof-off or worse, the bad child. I wondered if they ever had a chance to talk about this at home. Maybe their papers would speak for them—if their parents read their work.
We talked through the remainder of the period. I collected their papers and the day was done.
I didn’t see it until then, until I went to the window for a little breather before I set out for my second job at the PI firm. That’s when I spotted a Styrofoam cup, the sort used for take-out coffee, on the sill.
An innocuous object, yes. Except that there was no logical reason for that cup to be in my classroom.
I had unlocked my door that morning onto a room free of any take-out cups. I hadn’t brought any in with me, nor had any student broken the rules and come to class with food or drink.
That brought us to the point where we all trooped downstairs—every single teacher and student—for the god-awful assembly.
And then the return to the classroom, en masse, and not a one of us carrying coffee at that time, either.
And yet, there it was on my windowsill.
Only one person I knew of had been upstairs while I was not, and he was in the hospital now, fighting for his life.
I looked at the cup, afraid to lift it, although Styrofoam didn’t seem the sort of material that would hold fingerprints. There wasn’t much left inside—an inch or so. I bent over and sniffed. Not coffee. It had a faintly flowery scent, and it was pale. Herbal tea.
Tomas Severin, drinking tea in my classroom. I imagined him coming upstairs, checking his watch as no one was here, then coming into my room because it was the closest to the staircase. I pictured him looking out my window at the square.
Biding his time, or on the lookout for someone?
And then—something interrupted him and made him forget his tea, leave it behind.
A lot of information from a take-out cup except how a man got from drinking from it to lying, near death, at the bottom of the stairs and why he was here in the first place.
© Gillian Roberts.