They say teachers change lives.
In The Gutter, it's more of a mutation.
In The Gutter, it's more of a mutation.
Bethumped by JM Taylor
Mark Rossi’s arms and ankles were bound to the chrome uprights of the chair with rope cut from the window shades. They had been pulled down and one was completely off its roller, but no matter: only weak moonlight illuminated the room.
The other man paced like a caged animal, his boots stomping across a floor strewn with tumbled desks, splayed books, and crumbled paper.
Mark couldn’t completely see his face, but had a vague memory of acne-ridden skin stretched taught over bone, framed by long, greasy hair. That had been a dozen years ago, maybe more. Back in those days, there were so many faces with so much promise for the future. Now, in the dimness, Mark made out a fuller face, a stockier build, and a close-cropped skull.
“It’s all your fault,” the guy said. “And you’re gonna pay.”
Mark braced himself. The man jabbed a pencil into his skull and the room lit up. The chair teetered, but he kept his balance.
“Right here, right in this room, you fucked me over.”
“I…I didn’t do anything like that,” Mark said. “I was just doing my job. I was trying to help you, but you evidently didn’t follow through.”
This brought a punch to the gut, and Mark groaned. His ribs were already burning.
An hour earlier, he’d been having a quiet beer at his old after-work bar. It was supposed to be a trip down memory lane, and he guessed it had turned out to be. Except he hadn’t anticipated meeting one of the trolls.
The troll had followed him to the men’s room, where he'd done the old schoolboy trick of hitting Mark from behind while he pissed into the urinal. “Nice to see ya, Mister Rossi,” he said.
Dazed, Mark turned midstream to confront a barrage of blows. He stumbled ass-backwards into a stall and the guy yanked him out, pushing him through the bar into the parking lot. No one said a word as he was bundled into the bed of a pick-up truck that then sped into the night.
It didn’t take long to figure out they were going to the school where Mark had taught for more than thirty years. It was closed now, what with kids doing on-line classes and a public not interested in repairing the roof that collapsed in the last big snow. Education had died before that, gone moribund when budgets were slashed to make way for profits.
“All I needed was a diploma,” the guy said. “And you kept me from getting it, you dick.” To punctuate his anger, the guy planted his left Timberland boot in Mark’s groin.
Mark didn't resist the wave of nausea. The puke burned his broken teeth. The pain loosened something in his brain. “I remember you now,” he breathed. “Jerry Silvers. You refused to write any papers your last semester.”
“Like papers was gonna be important in my life, Mister Rossi. I was gonna start my own business. Who needs to know what novels Shakespeare wrote when you’re running a business?”
Mark grunted, the stench of puke urging him to add to the puddle already at his feet.
Silvers wandered over to the ravaged cork board.
Something stirred Mark’s sympathy. The poor guy had been unloosed on a world he never learned to cope with, no matter what his teachers had tried to instill in him. But even in the middle of this torture, Silvers was calling him “mister.” That must have meant something. Maybe he could still get out of this. He considered his bag of teacher tricks, but couldn’t find one for an enraged dropout.
“You made me work for something I should have been given,” Silvers whispered. “And now I’ll teach you a lesson.” He was examining something, but Mark didn’t know what until Silvers grasped his hand as if to shake it. Thumbtacks plunged into his palm.
Mark screamed as Silvers drove the points deep into his skin. His screams echoed off the hallway bricks and lockers.
“Thanks to you and your stupid classes, I ended up literally going to the moon to look for work. I couldn’t find nothin’.”
Silvers shook his head. “Fuckin’ books. I’ll show you what they’re good for.”
Even in the dark, Mister Rossi recognized the heft of the old Riverside Complete Shakespeare he’d left behind on his retirement. He wished his last lesson could have been worthy of it. The tome felt like a brick as it landed on his ear and knocked him to the ground, literally forever.