AN EMPTY DESK
Frederick Middle School social worker Keisha Jones discovers a body in the school dumpster on the first day of a new school year. When the police identify her as Julia Rodriguez, a student, Keisha visits the reported address and finds an abandoned house.
Opening school demands prevent Keisha from pursuing her suspicions about what happened, but experiences in her past cause her to recall events she has never come to grips with. Memories emerge randomly, unpredictable moments of deja vu. Instinct tells her there is a connection between Julia's death and her own memories.
While seeking information about the student's death, Keisha discovers a link with one of the school's teachers. Despite lacking evidence, she uses her connections to reveal - and avenge - Julia Rodriguez's death.
Something was bothering Keisha, but she couldn’t put a finger on it. It was the beginning of a new year and she didn’t feel the usual excitement. She felt depressed.
As she walked toward her beat up Toyota, Keisha looked back at the building. Frederick Middle School was an ugly old, smoky-red brick building that resembled an industrial age factory. The paint on the evenly spaced windows was peeling, making the school look ragged. Blacktop encircled the building, isolating it from the twenty foot high wire fence that marked the boundaries of the student playground.
In spite of the building’s ugliness, a lot of good people worked inside. Keisha had missed them over the summer. She should be looking forward to this day, yet she wasn’t.
Keisha stopped near the school dumpster, tempted to step over the yellow police ribbon and look inside. That was why she felt so depressed. Eddie Howard, a city detective and friend, had told her this morning that they’d found the body of a young girl in the dumpster yesterday. They’d identified her as Julia Rodriquez, a student at Frederick. Eddie said the girl had probably broken her neck falling into the dumpster while looking for something to eat. They hadn’t done an autopsy yet, but that seemed the most logical cause.
The death had shaken Keisha, crystallized into one event all her regrets about living in the city: The heartlessness exposed in Eddie’s matter-of-fact conclusion about how the girl had died, and the probability that he was right. The police couldn’t even find a next of kin to notify. It was a perfect metaphor for how the city treated kids. It ate them up.
Maybe her depression was a good sign. It meant she wasn’t completely de-sensitized. She turned away from the dumpster and as she did, she felt a sense of déjà vu. The feeling wasn’t strong, but the sense that she’d been there before followed her to her car. She shook it off, remembering why she’d left the school. Eddie had asked for a current address on Julia Rodriquez but when she gave it to him, he told her that house was abandoned.
It was a crack house, he said, which they had closed down months ago. Surprised—and ashamed that she hadn’t known that herself—Keisha had decided to check it out. She prided herself in knowing the neighborhoods where she lived and worked. Besides, she needed to get outside on such a nice day, to pick up her spirits.
As Keisha opened her car door, the main office loudspeaker clicked on. “David Evans and Willie Wright, please report to the main office. David Evans and Willie Wright, report to the main office immediately.”
She chuckled to herself. School wasn’t even one day old and Mrs. Nedelman, the principal’s secretary, was already hunting those two down. David and Willie had been at Frederick three years already and hadn’t passed a grade.
She got into her car and pulled away from the school. Doing school social work could get depressing. Mr. Richmann, her boss, kept telling her that. She could hear him now: “You’re taking things too much to heart, my dear. Richman’s Rule Number One is for every gain you make with one kid, you’re going to lose fifteen.”
Richmann had been a social worker in the school system for over twenty years and he’d grown cynical. At the same time he recognized Keisha’s value and gave her all the help he could. That was something to be happy about.
Keisha pulled out her note pad and glanced quickly at the address she had. 316 Levine, between 15th and 16th Streets. She wouldn’t tell Eddie she’d gone because he’d accuse her of trying to do his job again. They’d fought over this before, she accusing him of being too callous and not wanting to do a thorough investigation and he telling her to stop meddling. It was a great relationship.
Two blocks from Levine, Keisha slowed her car. A half a block up, on the sidewalk, stood two lines of people. The lines led up the steps of a large stone church, where they were giving away food. One line was for the elderly and it was moving slowly. The other was stationary.
As she neared the lines, she noticed a tall man wearing a full face mask striding up and down past the elderly, yelling. Prendle was a block fixture. Every time there was a food distribution he came to yell at everyone about how ashamed they should feel. He did it all day long, unless someone chased him away. Keisha drove past the lines. Several people waved.
She turned onto Levine, checked the address she’d written on a scrap piece of paper, then looked for numbers on one of the houses she was passing. She spotted a house number, passed two more houses, then pulled to the curb and turned off her car.
The house was huge, could have sheltered several families. It was also run down, the front haphazardly covered with a primer that must have run out before the painter reached the sides, which were bare. The doors and windows had fared better, carrying a full coat of primer. Broken glass filled the window frames, like bared incisors.
Keisha checked the mailbox, but it had no names written on it, nor was there any mail. She tried to open the front door. It was locked. She circled the house and spotted an entrance in the rear. A screen door hung in front of a larger, wooden one. The lower hinge on the main door was broken, but still holding. She peered inside, then pushed her way in and stepped gingerly on the floor, avoiding the scattered plaster and lath. The floor felt solid.
The sense of déjà vu returned, stronger this time. What were these feelings? Keisha put a lot of stock in sensations she felt, even if she didn’t understand them. It was one of the reasons she decided to study psychology in college, then go into social work.
She looked around her without noting much, caught up in the feeling, which lingered until she left the house. Curious, she decided to talk with a few neighbors. Eddie would throw a fit if he found out.
It took several houses before she found anyone home at a house across the street. She knocked on the door, but no one answered. She knocked louder, with her fist, then put her ear to the door. She heard a television inside. She knocked again.
“I heard you the first time!” a voice shouted. “Martha, get the door!”
Keisha waited silently.
“Martha, get the door!” the voice yelled again.
Footsteps sounded. “You get it, you lazy shit!” a shrill female voice responded.
“Shut up and get the door!” the first voice yelled.
The footsteps continued and the door was jerked open, stopped by a chain. A face appeared in the crack. “What you want?” a woman snapped, looking at Keisha.
“Hello ma’am, I’m Keisha Jones, from Frederick Middle School. I’d like to ask you a few questions about the house across the street.”
“Eugene go to school today,” the woman said, then turned and yelled into the interior of the house. “You wanna talk to the school?”
“What do they want?” came the response.
“They wanna talk to somebody!”
“Eugene went to school!”
“They not lookin’ for Eugene, stupid!” the woman yelled. “You wanna talk to them?”
“Let ‘em in!”
The woman turned back and looked at Keisha. “Who are you?” she asked.
“I work for the school,” Keisha repeated.
“The school! I tell you, Eugene, he in school! I send him to school this morning!”
“I’m not here about Eugene, ma’am,” Keisha said.
The woman looked at her for another moment, then shut the door far enough to unhook the latch and open it fully.
“They say it ain’t for Eugene!”
“Who are they?”
“Shut up, will you!” the woman responded. “If you got off your fat ass, you would know who they was! Get off your ass for once!”
“Martha, I’m warning you! I’m not going to take any shit from a Porto Rican!”
“I’m not a Porta Rican! I tole you not to call me no Porta Rican!”
Martha started toward the living room, then stopped. “That is the only Spanish word he knows! He is estupid man!” She turned and walked away, leaving Keisha in the hall.
Keisha stepped into the living room. A television blared from one corner. Magazines and clothing covered its top and most of the room’s furniture. Beer cans were scattered across the room, forming a path that led to a man sitting in a lazy boy chair, kiddie corner from the television. The man was fat, several rolls appearing like white bicycle tubes under his tightly fit t-shirt. An unwashed bed sheet separated him from the lazy boy chair.
The man sat up quickly when he saw Keisha, the double click of the lazy boy sounding strained from the weight it carried. “What he do this time?”
“I’m not here for your son, Mr. Kennedy,” Keisha said, remembering the name she’d read on the mail slot.
“If you ain’t here for him, what do you want? My other kid, he goes to school.”
“Yeah. What he do?”
“Nothing. Your son’s a great kid.” Mr. Kennedy grunted and Keisha continued. “I had hoped I could ask you a few questions about the house across the street.”
“The big one.”
“Lotsa big houses roun’ here.”
“The one across the street that’s abandoned.”
“What d’ya wanna know about it?”
“Well, if anyone has been living there, for one.”
“Drug addicks, that’s who,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Whores and drug addicks! They broke my cellar window last winter! I can’t even put laundry out ‘cause the damn drug addicks steal it!”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You’re sorry! You sound like the cops! Hell, you ain’t sorry! It was my window they broke! And I don’ have no time to be fixin’ windows that no damn drug addicks broke!”
“Have the police been here?”
“Yesterday! They don’t care about drugs!”
“Have you noticed anyone living in the house lately?” Keisha asked, pressing past Mr. Kennedy’s anger.
“Damn drugs,” he continued to himself. “Half this neighborhood is on drugs.”
“Are any school age children living there?”
“I don’t look at ‘em! I tole you some whores live there!”
“Would your wife know anything?”
Mr. Kennedy looked up sharply, then yelled, “Hey Martha! Come here!” He turned to Keisha. “If they was a Porto Rican, she’d know.”
A television advertisement filled the silence with its appeal.
“Martha, dammit!” Mr. Kennedy yelled. “Commere!”
Keisha waited a few more moments, between shouts for Martha, but she didn’t appear. “Listen, I’m going to leave you this telephone number,” she said. She jotted down her name and the school’s telephone number and handed it to Mr. Kennedy. “If you or your wife find out anything more about who lives there, or see anyone poking around the house, please call me.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Kennedy muttered, looking at the number, then setting it on a table next to him. “Damn Porto Rican.”
Keisha excused herself and walked back to her car, trying to remember a Eugene Kennedy. She couldn’t recall him at all, so the Kennedy’s must be new to the block. She did know Harmon. He was a good kid when he wasn’t fighting. After meeting his father, she could understand why.
As Keisha opened the door to her car, she felt it again, a sense of being here before. She decided to check Julia Rodriquez’s registration papers to see if she was Puerto Rican. She hadn’t known Julia well, remembered her as a frail, shy student who hadn’t been too good or too bad enough to warrant extra attention.
But what about the feelings she was experiencing now? She had experienced déjà vu before, but not three times in a day, connected to one specific incident. What was happening? Did it have anything to do with Julia Rodriquez?
The school’s inside contrasted sharply with the somber exterior. Keisha walked through freshly painted halls and shining floors. The walls were painted two-tone, the different colors separated by a strip of oak running five feet off the freshly waxed floor. The oak strip ran the entire length of the main hallway, interrupted occasionally by classroom doors. The doors had windows that had been reduced with smaller frames of wood, filled with plexiglass and covered with metal cages. Heavy wooden portals to the cell blocks of learning, her friend Karney called them.
Keisha reached the front of the school and the main office. The office was a large room, framed by huge glass walls. A long high counter divided the working half from the reception area. In the reception area, to the left, were staff mailboxes. On the right, a swinging door led into the office working area, where two secretaries sat.
There were no seats in front of the counter; that would encourage loafing, Mrs. Nedelman said. Keisha was never sure whether Mrs. Nedelman was talking about students or teachers when she talked about loafing. She had a cynical view of both.
Mrs. Nedelman was a stern, commanding presence in the school. If she tolerated you, your job was bearable. If she didn’t, she could make things miserable. She tolerated Keisha, who was careful to keep it that way.
A busy atmosphere prevailed in the office. Mrs. Nedelman was answering telephones and the intercom and her assistant, Alice Schofield, had boxes of papers on her desk, from which she was sorting and stapling packets, while answering phones.
Keisha stopped at her mailbox. Besides the usual stack of beginning of the year mail, there was a note from Higgins, the principal. He wanted to see her as soon as possible. His door was closed, as always, so she pushed her way into the work area and began to help Alice sort and staple.
“Hi, Keisha, how can I help you?” Alice said, hanging up the telephone and reaching out to touch her hand.
“How are you, Alice?” Keisha replied, holding up the note from Higgins. Alice was the older of the two secretaries, and the more pleasant one. She wasn’t as efficient as Mrs. Nedelman, but her warmth made her the perfect person to greet people entering the office. They complemented each other well, Keisha thought.
“Just a minute, Ms. Jones,” Mrs. Nedelman said, pushing down one of the buttons on her telephone and dialing another number. “Hello, Mr. Higgins? Ms. Jones is here. Yes, I’ll send her in.”
“How are you, Mrs. Nedelman?” Keisha said, smiling.
“Fine.” Mrs. Nedelman tried to force a smile, which came out looking more like a tight-lipped grimace. She pointed toward Higgins’ door, then pushed another button on her telephone to answer a call.
While Keisha put a last staple in the papers she held, it occurred that she had never called Mrs. Nedelman by her first name. No one did.
Keisha dropped the stapled packet into the proper box on Alice’s desk, then entered Higgins’ office. She left the door open.
The principal was sitting behind a huge desk in the corner, a telephone to his ear. The desk was as far from the door as possible, making him look besieged. He often acted like he was besieged, Keisha thought.
“Please. Close the door,” Higgins said, hanging up the phone.
She closed the door and sat at the table set up for student conferences. Looking at Higgins more directly, Keisha was surprised to see a different-looking man in front of her. He had done something to his hair. “Mr. Higgins, you changed your hair style,” she said. “It looks nice.” She realized her mistake before he even replied.
“Does that mean you’ll go out with me?” he asked.
“It’ll take more than that,” she tried to joke.
“What will it take, Keisha?” Higgins asked.
She didn’t respond, just smiled. She wasn’t good at this kind of repartee and shouldn’t have made a joke of it. Higgins was serious.
He got up from his chair and walked toward her. Putting his hand on her shoulder, he said, “You know you get better looking every year. I wish you’d just give me a chance.”
“What did you want to see me about?” she managed to ask, cursing inwardly at the timidness in her voice.
Higgins turned away and looked out the window near them, pulling his hand off her shoulder. Her gaze followed his to the busy street and she wondered what he was thinking.
“Ms. Jones, have you seen Mr. Karnesecki today?” he asked.
“Yes, why?” she asked, surprised.
“What happened?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You must have heard what happened yesterday.”
“He didn’t come to the faculty meeting!” Higgins snapped, whirling toward her. “Why not!”
She jumped, spooked by his sudden move. “Mr. Higgins, I think you should speak to John about that. I don’t think...”
“And he didn’t respond to my memo!”
“Mr. Higgins, you’re telling the wrong person.”
“Oh come on, Miss Jones, don’t defend him. You, someone who cares about students as much as you do, you shouldn’t defend him! He’s not good for the kids!”
Keisha didn’t respond.
“I assume you’re going to the second floor,” Higgins said.
“Please relay to Mr. Karnesecki that I would like to see him. Before he leaves today.”
“Ms. Jones, I mean what I say. You should decide where you stand on this, because I believe in getting rid of negative influences on our students.”
“I don’t think I stand anywhere,” she replied. “It’s none of my business.”
“Frankly, I had hoped you would be more supportive. How does Mr. Johnson feel?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he going to bring the union into this?”
“Mr. Higgins, I think you’re talking to the wrong person. If you want to know what Al is going to do, I recommend you talk to him.”
Higgins looked at her with a pained expression, but said nothing. The telephone rang.
When Higgins moved away from her to respond to the call, Keisha felt an immediate sense of relief. She cursed herself again. She should feel affronted at this whole thing, yet she felt relief—gratitude even—that it hadn’t gone any further. Why didn’t she react more strongly to his advance!
She had hoped Higgins wouldn’t start again this year. He first approached her last fall, at a weekend conference they attended. He had made several advances over dinner, then followed her to her room that evening, after a few drinks. A brief struggle in the hallway had been broken up when someone stepped off the elevator, allowing her the time to slip into her room and lock the door. Once she was safely inside, he’d apologized, and promised not to bother her again. She’d kept the door locked, terrified.
Higgins had mentioned the incident once more when they had returned to school, suggesting to her in a very unemotional way that they have an affair. She had turned him down, thinking that would be the end of it, but now he was starting up again, and in such a way that she was on the defensive immediately. He played her perfectly.
On leaving his office, she knew she would feel what she always felt after being put into this situation—guilt, as if she’d done something to cause this and he’d let her off the hook. Why did she always feel guilty for someone coming on to her! It didn’t just happen with Higgins; anyone who was aggressive made her feel that way. Instead of telling them off, she froze up. There was something wrong with her!
Higgins was still on the telephone, and Keisha stood up to go. He held up his hand. She waited another minute, while he finished his conversation. He hung up the telephone and walked over to her again.
“Ms. Jones, there’s the list of No shows on the desk. Please start them as soon as possible. And don’t mention our conversation to anyone.”
“Of course,” she said, relieved that he didn’t pursue the other line of conversation. She got up and walked to his desk, distinctly aware of his stare as she picked up the list.
“And let me warn you not to get too comfortable with John Karnesecki again this year. He won’t be with us much longer. Believe me when I tell you that.”
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