Why wouldn’t the tie behave? Why? Ron had spent the last three days successfully tying a full Windsor knot, but now he looked in the mirror at another failed attempt. The reflection looked terrible, asymmetrical and messy. “Jesus, what am I, ten?” he muttered and untied it. He tried again, wrapping the fabric around, across, and through. Same thing. He pulled the tie off and whipped it against the counter, knocking a can of shaving cream onto the bathroom floor. He kicked the can into the next room and whipped the tie against the counter again. Ron crumpled it up and flung it through the doorway and grabbed a black tie from the adjacent closet. The new tie still wouldn’t cooperate. He hadn’t worn a half Windsor knot to work since he was in his twenties, but that’s the road he was headed down once again. “I don’t believe this,” he muttered. It would be a half Windsor day.
As he worked on the knot, he looked through the bathroom door and into his bedroom. The blankets were tucked snug against the mattress, hugging the edges. The pillows were fluffed to perfection. Everything appeared neat and symmetrical and orderly. When he was first married the covers were in the mornings, but it was no longer his bed. He’d been kicked out and of course had no say in the matter. He checked his reflection now; the tie looked okay.
He straightened it under his collar and walked down the stairs into the family room. Joey was in the kitchen pouring milk into a bowl. After a few corn flakes and drops of milk fell over the sides, the boy screwed the cap onto the jug and carried it back to the refrigerator with both hands.
“Good morning,” Ron said, smiling at his son while entering the kitchen.
“Hey, Dad,” Joey said. He walked back over to the table and started eating.
Ron opened a cupboard, pulled out a coffee tin and started preparing for his morning dosage.
“How was your conference?” Joey asked between spoonfuls.
“Well, actually it was a symposium, and it went very well,” Ron said, pouring the coffee grounds into the filter. “Thank you for asking.”
“What’s a symposium?”
“Well, it’s kind of like a…” Ron began, pouring water into the coffee maker, and then, “It’s like a conference I guess.”
“Oh,” Joey said. He took another spoonful of cereal and crunched loudly.
“Yep,” Ron smiled and drummed his fingers on the counter. “Yep…that’s what it is. Guess you learned a new word today.” His mind drifted away. Should he or shouldn’t he? He decided he should. “How was mommy while I was gone?” he asked, dropping the first bomb.
“Good. She didn’t say anything about you,” Joey said, dropping the second bomb.
Ron coughed. “What?”
Joey looked back from his seat. “She didn’t say anything about you. She said you would ask me that, too.”
“Well that’s good, Joey. We always want to tell the truth, don’t we?” Ron mulled it over and realized he shouldn’t have asked. Stupid. Idiot. How could he win this one? She was coaching the kid for God’s sake. “So you saw her this morning?”
Joey nodded. “She said she didn’t want the rest of her coffee, so she poured it in the sink.”
“You mean she made some before I woke up?” Ron asked. He used the phrase “woke up” loosely, as he hadn’t been fully asleep in the guest room all night.
“She drank some and poured the rest out,” Joey said. “Then she went to work.”
“Jesus,” Ron muttered. She could’ve left some for me, he thought. Now he was standing around like an idiot waiting for a new pot of coffee to brew. He sighed and shook his head. “Ridiculous,” he muttered. Petty was what it was, really.
“What?” Joey asked.
“I said how’s school going?” Ron asked with a smile. Joey then went on about various topics including but not limited to recess, PE class, friends he had, dogs, elephants, lions, etc. Ron nodded as the pot filled with coffee. He poured some into a mug and sat down at the table, taking a sip and nodding some more as Joey continued his life story.
“Fifth grade,” Ron said. “You’re almost a big kid now, almost eleven!”
Joey smiled and nodded.
“What’d you learn yesterday?” Ron asked and took another sip. “I didn’t see you after school.”
Joey finished chewing and said, “Oh, well we learned about sex. Mrs. Cloverdale taught us about penises and vaginas. I always wondered what sex was.”
Ron spit a mouthful of coffee out in the form of mist, his lips making a buzzing sound. Joey blinked twice like a cartoon character, some specks having hit his face. What the fuck, Ron thought. Why the hell wouldn’t the school have told him about this ahead of time? Weren’t parents entitled to have their own birds and bees discussion?
Joey stopped eating and began fidgeting at his seat. He looked down at the table, dotted with brown coffee droplets.
“Ok, uh, let’s get ready to go,” Ron said, not knowing how else to respond. He stood up and walked away, reaching for the cell phone in his pocket. It was dead. Not that he wanted to talk to Lori, but this had to be mentioned. Ron couldn’t risk Joey bringing the subject up to her in casual conversation as had just happened to him. It would be hilarious, sure, but Ron would never hear the end of it. She had to know what was going on. If she got caught off guard she’d just blame him. “Damnit,” he said and put the phone back in his pocket. “I don’t have time for this shit.”
Joey had put the cereal away in a cupboard and set his bowl on the counter near the sink. He ran out of the kitchen and upstairs to his room. Ron sat back down. His face felt hot and beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. Just what I need, he thought.
“Forget the bus, I’ll drive you,” Ron stood up and walked into the garage when Joey returned with his backpack. He got into the driver’s seat of the family’s mini van and slammed the door shut. Joey followed and climbed onto the back seat. The van’s engine sputtered on and Ron backed it out onto the street.
Neither father nor son spoke during the ride to school. The only sound came from Ron’s loud breathing. Mrs. Cloverdale, Ron thought. What a joke. Sounds like one of those seventy-year-old women still teaching elementary school. Why the hell did young kids have such old teachers anyway?
After the ten-minute drive, he turned into the school parking lot. A bus was parked in front of the main doors letting off a group of children. Joey commented that it was his bus and how it had arrived faster and why didn’t he just take the bus like normal? Ron told him to be quiet. Parents walked their kids to the doors, hugged them, and went back to their cars to drive to work. After parking the car, Ron turned around.
“Listen,” he said. “You’re not in trouble, I just want you to know that. You’re a good boy and I’m always proud of you.”
“Okay,” Joey said, undoing his seatbelt and exiting the vehicle. He started walking towards the school without Ron, who realized he had no idea where the kid’s classroom was.
“Whoa, wait a second,” he called, still sitting in the car. He hopped out and locked the doors. When he caught up with Joey he grabbed his shoulder. “Hold on there, track star. I’d like to meet your teacher, Mrs.…”
“Cloverdale,” Joey said.
Joey led him up the steps into the double doors. The two entered the building and Ron was immediately out of place, standing about four feet higher than the average member of the crowd wandering the hallway. The children littering the area stormed around aimlessly. Joey walked past a few rooms and then looked back at Ron in front of one of the doors.
“This it?” Ron asked.
“This is my classroom,” Joey said.
Ron saw an elderly woman inside, as he’d predicted. She made eye contact with him through the doorway and smiled, conjuring up memories of his own elementary school teachers many moons ago. The soon-to-be retirees making a career of teaching long division. Her brow furrowed as she approached the doorway from within.
“Well, good morning, Joey,” the woman said and looked up. “You must be Mr. Winters.”
“Yes, I’m-” Ron started coughing, creating an awkward moment. He’d meant to be slick about the whole thing. “Yes, I’m Ron Winters, that’s right.”
“Well, it’s nice to finally meet you in person. Joey says a lot of good things about you,” the woman extended her hand. “I’m Judith Cloverdale, his teacher,” she said, her hand suspended in space.
“Can I talk to you in private, please?”
She let the hand fall back to her side and looked back at the classroom. “Well, Mr. Winters, school is about to begin. Can this wait till this afternoon?”
“No, damnit,” Ron started and then looked down at Joey, who had been studying the exchange from below. He lowered his voice and stepped closer to the teacher. “No, damnit, it can’t.”
Ron stared at the woman. She grimaced and turned to the boy. “Go ahead and have a seat, Joey. I’ll be right in.” The boy walked into the room and she closed the door behind him, turning back to Ron.
He looked around the hall and made sure most of the kids were either gone or out of earshot. “What the hell’s going on around here?” he growled. He could see her desk through the door’s window and imagined running his arm across its surface, flinging papers and books throughout the classroom.
Mrs. Cloverdale’s eyes sprung open. “Well, Mr. Winters that language is hardly appropriate.”
“Oh, well let me fix that. What the fuck is going around here?”
She put her hand over her chest and gaped at Ron. “What in heavens is the matter with you?”
“My son comes home and starts rattling off about sex, about penises and vaginas and that’s the first time I hear that he’s going through sex ed?” Ron crossed his arms. “Don’t you need to send home a letter? Some kind of warning so I don’t look like a goddamn idiot in front of my kid?”
Mrs. Cloverdale took a step back. She looked at the floor and her face softened a bit. It took her a moment, but she finally spoke. “It was my understanding that-”
“What the hell kind of school is this?” Ron asked. “One of these new-age communes for kids? You don’t write their names on the board for bad behavior, it damages their spirits? They have to identify their personalities with herbivores or some bullshit like that? Let me guess, if Joey came here and told you I spanked him you’d call social services on me, because discipline doesn’t exist anymore. Is that it?”
“Mr. Winters, what has gotten into you?” Mrs. Cloverdale asked. “You’re setting a terrible example!”
“Oh, gimme a break, you’re setting a terrible example! Don’t you think it’s a fucking problem for you to start teaching my kid about sex without giving me and my wife a little time to prepare for it? What the fuck’s the matter with you people? Do I get to raise my own son, or is that out of the question?” Ron asked. “Am I allowed to have control of anything?”
“Lower your voice,” Mrs. Cloverdale said. “There are children present.”
“No, goddamnit, I’m fuckin’ pissed! If you have some kind of excuse, I’m all ears. Is this one of your progressive teaching methods, taking the parents out of the equation?”
“Hey, what’s going on over here,” a male voice echoed from the end of the hall.
Ron turned to see an overweight bald man approaching them. Mrs. Cloverdale escaped into the classroom, shutting the door and locking it from inside. Now Ron was alone and helpless.
“What’s the problem?” the man asked.
“What are you, the principal?”
“Yes, I am the principal of this school, sir. Who might you be?” the man asked with a condescending smirk and a raised eyebrow.
“I’m Ron Winters. I’m eternally grateful my son goes to school here. What a privilege. ”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Ron Winters, and might I ask why you’re making a scene and frightening the students at my school?” the principal motioned behind him where a few small faces were poking out from around a corner.
Ron shook his head. “Things seem to be stacking up on me this week and I don’t have time for it.”
“Well, you think we could handle these problems in a more constructive way, and say, not take them out on elementary school children and their teachers, or do I have to make a phone call?” the principal asked. His eyes were wide open.
Ron narrowed his eyes. “Hey, fuck you, man. Your asshole teachers are out of line! I’ve done nothing wrong here. I came to try to retain some of my parental dignity if there’s any of that left to reclaim. If you did your job and kept a leash on these geriatrics you got runnin’ around here I’d be at work right now supporting my family and not losing my mind in a fucking elementary school.”
The principal scratched his chin. “If you leave right now, I will not call the police. If you do not leave, I will call them and press charges and make sure you never come within a hundred feet of this building ever again.” His face was now locked in a stern expression.
Ron stormed through the hallway and out of the building. He stomped across the parking lot and entered the mini-van, punching the steering wheel a couple times before slamming the door. It felt like a good time to call his wife and explain the phone call she was bound to get from the school. He realized his phone was still dead and plugged it into the car charger. After it turned on, he noticed a small icon indicating he had unheard voicemails, so he dialed his inbox.
“You have unheard messages,” the phone said. Ron pushed a button. “First skipped message.”
Lori’s low-pitched voice played over the speaker. “Hello…Ronald. Whenever you get home, you can sleep in the guest room again-” Ron pressed a button.
“Message deleted,” the phone said. “First unheard message.”
Lori’s unpleasant voice returned to Ron’s ears. “So, just for your information, Joe’s teacher started their sex ed class yesterday, so if he asks you any questions don’t be weird about it. I don’t want him coming to me with questions because you confused him about something, which is entirely possible considering your knowledge of the topic confuses me every day,” Lori said and hung up.
“Would you like to save this message?” the phone asked. “Press one for…” Ron dropped the phone on the floor and threw his fist into the steering wheel. Something began swelling up in his chest and a bead of sweat rolled down his temple. He slumped in the seat and glanced at the driver’s side mirror. In the reflection, he could see that his tie was crooked.