My first instinct upon spotting Freddie Wyatt that afternoon was to turn abruptly and act as though I had not seen him. After all, people had been turning away from Mr. Wyatt, usually out of derision, for as long as I could remember.
But such subterfuge was hardly possible in the limited confines of Dr. Cabell’s office. The hardwood floor ran barely fifty feet from the receptionist’s cubicle. A glass coffee table loaded with non-controversial periodicals and numerous wooden chairs with plush backing crowded close together and did not allow for aloofness.
So all I could do was face Mr. Wyatt and force a smile.
He did not smile back, and the set grimness of his face made its gauntness that much more troubling.
I hadn’t seen him in many years, probably not since I’d returned to Compton, South Carolina, more than a decade and a half before. For one thing, Mr. Wyatt did not get around much. He was not a hermit exactly, at least not by choice; he had never gotten a driver’s license, an item to add to his list of crimes against humanity, at least in the estimation of some local bigots. For years, he had depended upon a widowed aunt to drive him wherever he needed to go, chiefly his places of work, first and longest at Moody Junior High School, where he had been my eighth grade English teacher, and later, until his retirement, at Compton High School, where he had replaced the venerable Celia Blanton upon hers.
“Will McMillan,” he called out stiffly to me in a voice that had the energy of the computer-generated, of Hal in 2001.
I nodded at him and called his name. I was standing at the receptionist’s window, filling out a paper necessary for my optometrist appointment, although I had been seeing Dr. Cabell for years by then, even before I left Compton for college. It made me feel like a first-time visitor to his office, which sat two blocks east from downtown Main Street. The long front glass window was ablaze with the warm blue and yellow haze of early autumn.
I took a seat directly across from Mr. Wyatt, maybe 20 feet away, hoping, perhaps without realizing it, that such a distance would signal my lack of interest in any further conversation with him. He did not catch the signal—or merely ignored it. In fact he stood and came over to me and took the chair right in front of me, only a few feet, so that our knees could, with a bit of effort, touch.
His trip across the room gave me a further chance to be shocked by his weight loss. He had never been fat exactly, at least not in my acquaintance with him, but plump certainly, a fact highlighted by the light-colored sweater shirts he invariably wore in the late 1970s. From the neck of those shirts crept a tuft of wiry black hair that tickled his Adam’s apple. On his head, back then, sat his own thinning black hair. He almost always favored bell-bottom jeans. The impression he gave then was of modishness, a fashion and mindset from the decade before. He was an ancient 29-year-old when he taught my classmates and me, and seemed a man desperate to hold on to what remained of his youth. Never mind the twinkle in his eyes or the sprightliness of his movement. To a 14-year-old in 1978, 30 was not only over the hill but quickly breaching the valley of the shadow of death.
Now, thirty years later, he really was old.
What gaiety had once existed in his eyes had burned to dull ash. His whole face was ashen, although not really lined. His mouth was set hard, and one imagined if and when it did move, it did so automatically to make a frown. And his hair? A fringe of the grayed original circled like rime around his head; the rest was store-bought.
“Tell me, Will,” he began in a voice stilted and otherworldly enough to issue prophecies and premonitions. “Are you still teaching at the university?”
“Yes sir,” I snapped at once, as though we had gone back thirty years to his classroom and I was being quizzed on past participles. And then I added, as an attempt at levity, “At least I try. When they let me.” It was a standard reply that usually drew good-natured chuckles.
But not this time. Not from Mr. Wyatt.
He went on, not satisfied, his dead eyes fastened on me. “And do you have many good students?”
I shook my head. “No sir. Not many at all. Very few in fact.”
The admission did not seem to register with him, at least not by indication of his face, which remained stiff. In fact, he looked away when he said, “Doesn’t surprise me. By the time I retired I had students who couldn’t find a subject or verb in a sentence. They had to use the process of elimination.”
I laughed. “I have that same problem now.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” he repeated, still not looking at me, but elsewhere, the past perhaps, recent or distant. I waited for him to say that ours, the class of 1982, was the last good class, the last fully literate one, the last to separate subjects from predicates, to make pronouns and antecedents agree, to write in paragraphs. After all, other erstwhile teachers had given us such compliments, so I had become used to them, expected them. But he didn’t, which disappointed me.
Surely he remembered how good we were back then! How good he had been. And he had been. I had admired him so, way back in 1978, to the point of emulation even. Yes he had been flamboyant, effeminate, and theatrical. Yes he had been the butt of “queer” jokes—innuendoes, wrist-droppings, sibilant, lisping imitations behind his back. What overtly gay man in Compton, South Carolina, had not been in those days? But I had been able to see the Freddie Wyatt who was witty and well-traveled. He had been to Europe and had even seen a film by Fellini (my creative idol at the time) in a Parisian theater. He had gone to Carolina, where I wanted to go, for both his degrees. And most of all, he had read—lots of books. Innumerable books, it seemed, which he could sit and discuss in detail with other English teachers at Moody Junior High during lunch. (I often skipped the bad cafeteria food just to listen to these confabs.) I had no sense of literary distinction then, so it did not matter that what Mr. Wyatt read and got excited about were potboilers, bestsellers—Jacqueline Susann and her ilk. He made them sound so exciting that I could not wait to get my hands on them, with the mistaken notion that they were literary works, important books, examples of fine writing, when, of course they were no such thing. (It was another, greater English teacher, Miss Blanton, who disabused me of this lack of prejudice in such matters.)
I began to mimic him, not in a malicious way, but admiringly, to affect his gestures and manner and modes of speaking, as though imitation would lend me some of his wit, his verbal elegance, the sophistication I perceived in him. I took to spending my lunch hours in his classroom, which he freely offered to me and other students not much interested in fresh air or sunshine or campus chatter. During those hours I often brought my feeble poetry to him, derived not from actual literary masters but from the rock lyrics that I mistook for poetry. He was always very kind in response.
I became devoted to Freddie Wyatt, to the point where I could legitimately be called not only his student but also his protégé and acolyte. This devotion allowed for ignorance of certain behaviors: for instance, the time in his classroom during lunch when he walked up behind my friend and classmate Larry Rivers, hooked his arm through Larry’s, and said, “Hello, beautiful.” (Larry was, after all, a good-looking boy in an unorthodox way, although never celebrated on the school grounds for his beauty or any other attribute, being a determined loner and individualist.)
“They don’t read anymore, do they?” he asked presently in Dr. Cabell’s waiting room.
I didn’t reply right away, hoping the obvious truth of what he had just said would be its own answer. But Mr. Wyatt would not relent in staring at me. He wanted a reply.
“No. They are too busy doing this.” And I limned a typical teenager frantically texting. I thought the imitation would draw at least a smile from Mr. Wyatt, but he sat stone-faced, dead-eyed.
What in the world had happened to him in those intervening years?
Now and then, over the years, I caught snatches of news about him when I briefly docked in Compton after forays hither and yon. One story was that his exodus from Moody Junior High to Compton High had not been voluntary, but precipitated by an incident involving a male student who claimed Mr. Wyatt had shown him undue, aggressive “friendliness.” I didn’t know what to believe. I remembered Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands,” about the plight of Wing Biddlebaum, and thought, “What a damned little town cliché! The pervert bachelor schoolteacher” and dismissed the story. He had apparently been spotted in drugstores and other outlets around town purchasing publications such as Playgirl and bodybuilding magazines aimed at young men.
But that was later, long after I had been a student in his classroom. In 1978, he was a hero of mine, saved from any ridicule by his cultural erudition and experience. Others didn’t see it that way—my classmates, many of them anyway. They noticed the time I spent in his room during lunch and after school. They registered my affectation of Mr. Wyatt’s more fluid and dramatic hand gestures, facial expressions, and verbal cattiness. And being 14-year-olds, a fair number of them concluded that birds of a feather flock together, and that if Freddie Wyatt was an unrepentant fruitcake, well then, so was Will McMillan.
“I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t read. I’ve ruined my eyes with so much reading. That’s why I’m here now.”
I thought I caught the flicker of a smile on one side of his mouth. He had tried to be funny saying what he had just said, but could not quite muster the old wit that came effortlessly, effusively, when he was my teacher. When I was 14, I so wanted to be that clever…that spontaneously funny…to be able to jab verbal stilettos into the jugulars of the willfully ignorant. And I imagined that if I spoke languidly and used my hands in constant, flashy semaphores, somehow I would channel Freddie Wyatt’s brittle wit and emulate it and draw the admiration of everyone around me.
Instead, I drew that deadliest, most hateful epithet circulating the adolescent world in the late 1970s.
I don’t remember who used the word first. Probably some pothead non-entity on the grounds of Moody Junior High. They were legion then, so it wasn’t long before this one-word, one-note song was picked up by a chorus of my fellow students, some of them erstwhile friends. People I had gone to school with for eight years or more, fellow veterans of recess and cafeteria food, and “teachers’ dirty looks”—now suddenly alien and willing even to taunt me at any opportune moment. I became a convenient target for derision and amusement. Some flipped their wrists at me and hiked up their speaking voices to soprano-vibrato.
“Faggot. Will McMillan’s a queer.”
“You ever been married, Mr. Wyatt?” Becky Ann Hobbs asked brazenly one spring afternoon in his classroom. She was our class’s chief gadfly, tolerated because of her intellect and work ethic.
Mr. Wyatt had not seemed caught off guard by her question, which had come out of nowhere. He sat at his desk and beamed at Becky Ann, as though he were glad she had asked and was anxious to answer.
“No. But I’m engaged,” he said, rising slightly from his seat, as though levitated by pride.
I remember everyone else in the room that lunch hour—Becky Ann, Larry Rivers, others—sitting in stunned collective silence before Becky Ann said, “Really?”
“Yes.” Mr. Wyatt went on, happy to perpetuate this lie. “Her name is Mary. She lives in Columbia.”
“Have you set a date?”
“No. She’s still in school. Grad school. We’re waiting till after she finishes.”
Mary in Columbia. No young women were named Mary. Only old ladies were named Mary. Still, Mr. Wyatt related the fantasy with such gusto, it was tough not to buy it, at least partly. And it gave me an idea, a way to combat the animus that had arisen against me by certain male eighth graders: I invented a girlfriend. Jane. From Spartanburg. A seventh grader whom I saw whenever my parents allowed for very innocent, platonic brief meetings at the skating rink or the movies or the pizza place. All supervised, of course. I named her after a distant cousin who had herself taught English at Moody Junior a year or so before. It didn’t occur to me at my perfervid moment of inspiration that not many, if any, girls our age were named Jane any more than they were named Mary, but as soon as the idea hit, I went with it.
The ruse worked. Some former friends and acquaintances began to gravitate towards me once more—or at least to nod or speak in a halfway cordial way.
“And here I thought you was a queer,” one of them openly confided, sighing in tremendous relief.
This subterfuge also required that I abandon any fey mannerisms, any theatricality, or any other personal or physical habits that might be construed as feminine. It meant exaggerating my attraction to females, sometimes to the point of vulgarity. Lastly, it necessitated distancing myself from Freddie Wyatt, stopping lunchtime hangouts in his classroom, and avoiding him on campus as much as possible. This last requirement proved not so difficult to execute, since I was nearing the end of my time at Moody Junior High and would begin classes at Compton High School the next fall.
“I love the Harry Potter books,” Mr. Wyatt said out of nowhere in Dr. Cabell’s waiting room. “I’ve read all of them and plan to read them again. I have all the first editions and wouldn’t part with them for the world. They’re better than Tolkien, whom I find so very tedious at times. Almost impenetrable. Have you read them?”
“The first one."
I thought how Miss Blanton, the teacher whom Mr. Wyatt had succeeded at Compton High, wouldn’t have even laid a finger on any of those beloved books and would have recoiled at his description of Tolkien.
“You didn’t care for it?” he asked further, but I was saved from embarrassment by Dr. Cabell’s assistant poking her head through the door and telling Mr. Wyatt to come on in and follow her to the back.
After high school, I left Compton for various points in the world—college in Columbia, employment there and in New York and Washington—before returning home for what now seems like for good. Freddie Wyatt rarely entered my thoughts during those years of exile, except, as I have put down earlier, the occasional scraps of gossip that drifted my way. Even after I had established myself as an academic at the hometown university, accumulating nearly twenty years as a teacher, Mr. Wyatt held a low profile in my life. And then, suddenly, as a result of an optometrist appointment, he had returned, and the reunion left me unsettled. It created more bad feelings than good. I felt pity foremost and gratefulness that I had not ended up like him—a frail recluse with a legacy of (being an object of?) derision. I almost resented the Fates allowing us to run into each other again, for all the negative memories that awakened. I had very nearly become an outcast myself as a result of my closeness to Freddie Wyatt and the beguilement he had cast upon me. Then I felt immediate, acute shame for blaming him. No one had forced me to become attached to him, to spend an inordinate amount of time with him, to emulate him. It had all been a choice, made by an adolescent seeking guidance to enter a world of arts and learning so very different than his own
Several days later, I was in my university office when the phone rang.
“Will McMillan?” came the question to my hello.
I recognized the voice immediately, but pretended ignorance.
“This is Freddie Wyatt,” he said, and stopped.
“Yes, Mr. Wyatt. How are you?”
“Fine. I’m fine,” he answered in the same funereal tone he’d used in the optometrist’s office.
“What can I do for you?”
There was a pause.
“Your British Literature class.”
“The syllabus. You have a syllabus for it.”
“Of course. We have to have syllabi for all our courses.”
Silence of the awkward kind filled the next moment or two before Mr. Wyatt resumed.
“If you don’t mind, I would like a copy of it.”
“Yes. I need to catch up on those old things. I’ve not read them in years. Some I’ve not read at all.”
“I’m afraid J.K. Rowling isn’t on there,” I said as a joke, but was the only one to laugh. I tried to recover with “I’d be happy to email you a copy.”
“I don’t have email.”
“Yes sir.” Then, “I could mail it to you.”
Another long pause made me wonder if he had abandoned the line. But no.
“I’d like to meet. In person. And talk. It was good seeing you the other day at Dr. Cabell’s and talking the little bit we did. I don’t get much of a chance to talk about books with anyone. I don’t get out very much, and when I do, I don’t run into many readers.”
I thought I heard a snicker in his voice, a glimpse of the “old” Freddie Wyatt, that is, the young Freddie Wyatt.
“You could come to my home. Or we could meet elsewhere. I don’t drive, you know, so you’d have to come get me. If you don’t mind.”
While he spoke, while he gently, quietly spun out this plan, desperation rising slowing with each sentence, my insides twisted and roiled, and at one white-flashing point I almost yelled, “No!” and slammed down the phone. But I didn’t. I sat and listened and hummed something like agreement. A tentative, very fragile agreement that was really no such thing, just an attempt not to hurt him. Then he stopped and left the air open to me, to actual agreement or denial.
And I said, “Yes. Sure. That would be fine. I can bring the syllabus to your home.” I didn’t ask him about the person, whoever it was, who normally transported him around town to his appointments and what-not, or ask why that person couldn’t come for the syllabus or, even, bring him to my office to get it.
Relief was palpable on the other end of the phone. I thought I heard a sigh.
“Good. Good,” he said, and then we discussed a time and a day, and I pretended to scribble down all this when actually I wrote “NO” over and over again on the back of an envelope.
I stuck to my resolve. I did not go to Mr. Wyatt’s with a copy of the course syllabus he had requested. In my office, I watched the hour of our date come and go, and tried not to feel the guilt that always accompanies a lie. I tried rationalization and managed to come up with something. The past was the past. There was sometimes no point in revisiting it, even when one had made a promise to do so for the sake of a former and very important influence. One never resumes the skin he has shed and left behind.
Not even snakes can perform that trick.
RANDALL IVEY's work has appeared in a variety of sources in the United States and England, including The SC Review, Assaracus, Emrys Journal, The Chiron Review, and others. He is the author of a novel, three story collections, and a book for children.