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“When Lincoln and Douglas debated in Charleston, Illinois, Lincoln said the following: ‘There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as… there must be a position of superior and inferior… I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
He spots a hand mid-class. Ah yes, Kevin Konker.
“Isn’t this just another case of a bunch of liberal academics trying to rewrite history?”
From the tone of his questions, Kevin had long ago given himself away as a fan of conservative radio, where grand conspiracies could be constructed from whole cloth whenever the host ran out of actual arguments. David always found it best to begin with a compliment, the better to knock his opponent off-balance.
“That’s an excellent question, Kevin. In fact, ne of the biggest mistakes made my academics is to judge historical figures by modern moral standards. Imagine if Lincoln ran for President in 2012 and made this same statement. Holy crap!”
His low-level obscenity gets a laugh, which in a final-period class, on a sunny day, is a major victory.
“However, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were widely attended and recorded, so I assure you, that is what the man said. Lincoln saw the abolition of slavery as an unattainable goal, so he kept his focus on stopping the spread of slavery. And he occasionally talked like a racist. If he had tried for more – if he had become an outright abolitionist – he would not have become President, and we would not be talking about him right now.
“Now. I want you to understand something else. All your lives, we have sold you an image of Abraham Lincoln as a great and saintly figure. This is because your minds were not yet capable of grasping the jarring complexities that make up the true Lincoln. In the end, I hope that you will see him as I do: not that giant dull face on Mount Rushmore but a flawed and vigorous human being, an absolutely brilliant politician and legal thinker, and an amazing leader of men. But I leave that decision to you.”
He checks the clock and finds he has only ten seconds.
“Chapter 16 for Monday. One week till finals. Hang in there!”
He nails the last word at the bell, then steps away from the door lest he be trampled. In Ocean Shores, spring fever is an actual and perilous affliction. The salmon swimming upstream is Abigail Sparling, a gathering of strawberry blonde curls, freckled cheekbones and hazel eyes that bend light like Einsteinian opals.
“David, I love you.”
“Hold that thought.” He catches Kevin by the shoulder. Kevin turns with a blank look, that expressionless expression used by teenagers the world ‘round.
“Mister Konker. Keep those questions coming. Makes for a lively classroom.”
“Oh. Sure. Thanks.”
And he’s gone with the rest. David makes certain to close and lock the door before he returns to Abbey, who is perched provocatively on his desk.
“Now I love you even more. First I loved you for that fucking brilliant analysis of Lincoln. Now I love you for taking that Limbaugh-loving punk – he who claims that it ain’t poetry unless it rhymes, ahrr! – and planting that devious little seed of skepticism. You are a beautiful, beautiful man, and I want to have your children.”
“Thanks. But could you please stop the gushing before one of my children passes by?”
She twirls a strand of hair around a pinkie. “Sorry. I’m a poet.”
“No shit. Any other reason for your visit, Ms. Sparling?”
She hands him a flyer. “The annual literary anthology. Tell your students. Perhaps buy a dozen copies for your family.”
“Well, I don’t know about…”
“Because your son’s in it.”
“Two poems. Excellent poems.”
“I had no idea.”
“Derek’s mind is almost as interesting as his old man’s.” She hops off his desk and makes for the door. David’s always had a weakness for women who wear jackets with blue jeans. She turns at the door.
“Listen. I understand the wife thing, the professional thing. That… other thing. But I am well acquainted with tragedy. If you want to talk sometime, I’m sure you’ll find a way to let me know.”
Abbey opens the door with her left arm – because it’s the only one she’s got – and slips into the hallway. He listens to the tock of her cowboy boots until they fade into the hum of the ventilation, and wonders if his son is in love with her, too.
He pulls into the Beach Mall to find young people on mopeds, running loops around the parking lot. This is both the plus and minus of Harvey’s Bike-Rent. Plus: it brings in traffic. Minus: stupid, reckless traffic. A teenage couple is headed right for him, legs and arms all over the place. They wobble past his fender in a burst of Doppler giggling and turn for the beach. It’s Derek’s friend, Toby Monamer. With a girl.
Elena slides a bowl into the sink. She may or may not have been eating from it.
“Hola, guapa.” (?)
He leans over the counter for a kiss and comes back with Exhibit B. Strawberry.
“How’s the biz?” he asks.
“Sunshine! Got a nice little after-school rush.”
“I’ve been slipping subliminal messages into my lectures. Benjamin Franklin got the French to send Lafayette largely by plying his wife with pistachio ice cream.”
Elena releases her bright, rounded laugh. Her laugh is as tasty as her lips. And she laughs at his jokes.
“One more week, I’ll be back there with you, honey. You okay for closing?”
“I’m fine. Could you pick up a pizza?”
“I know just the place.”
She draws up a simple smile. There’s something else about her that he has never figured out, until now. Her eyebrows are perfect: dark and sharp, curving inward at an angle that makes her seem ceaselessly witty and sexy. All these years, he has been in thrall to something he has not actually seen.
“Looking at my beautiful wife.”
The smile grows. With whiter skin she’d be blushing.
“You make me feel like a teenager.”
“Just stay off the mopeds.”
He exits to a warm breeze. A twelve-year-old grinds past on a skateboard.
Photo by MJV