I was born to attend The Pembroke Hill School, but the honor was denied me owing to a swift investigation of my grandfather, the handsome Headmaster of Pembroke. They found him guilty of fucking all the wives of the filthy rich Pembroke Hill School Trustees: rich and stupid men who believed my grandfather to be their loyal pal – a pal on the course, a partner deep in the bottle, and in some cases, a buddy in the trench.
My grandfather was chased out of Kansas City with a smile on his face, having forever soiled our family name. He didn’t care. It wasn’t his kind of town anyway, and I’m glad that my father’s parents were not true Kansas City people. They weren’t Turks either, although members of that noble race have sometimes mistaken my father for one of their own. That fine man carried something of the exotic in him from Istanbul, where my grandfather had been headmaster of another distinguished institution, the Peter Fearson School for Boys.
They certainly had a good thing going in Turkey: a thousand-year-old villa on the Bosporus, classical servant culture, and a decent club life. But a swift investigation was conducted that found my grandfather guilty of fucking all the wives of the distinguished and extremely rich Peter Fearson School trustees: foolish men who trusted my grandfather and believed him to be a thoroughly good chap – a brother behind the baseline, chasing down a late afternoon lob, a buddy in the bathhouse with a rock hard always at the ready, and in some cases, a friend in the foxhole.
My grandfather did a lot of fucking in Istanbul before moving to Kansas City, where he did a lot more of the same. Because of my grandfather I was forced to attend the low public elementary school that served our historically wealthy Kansas City suburb, but by 6th grade I’d had enough of John Diemer Elementary. Thankfully, I’d been accepted at a 2nd tier Protestant school in the heart of the inner city, an urban district referred to by some Kansas Citians as The Heart of the Lion’s Den. And so, nearing the end of my 6th grade year, I sat across from my father, a Pembroke Hill alumnus in good standing. He enjoyed the pleasures of the table at a mid-range 1950’s style chain diner called Joe’s, where the waitresses wore pink poodle skirts. Those waitresses knew how to briefly worship my father.
We were there to discuss the findings of a swift investigation that had found me guilty of using a purple marker to write death to Ms. Zollers and Dr. Owens above the boy’s urinals at John Diemer Elementary School. My father was not a procrastinator. His passion was meaningless banter with waitresses, but he got down to business when he had to. In addressing the business at hand, he opened as he always did, after the waitress apologetically excused herself from her duties. She was willing to lose her job for my father’s vapid validation. The other tables were complaining to the manager. They needed to order.
“Golf builds character,” my father spoke. “Do you know who said that?”
My father had posed and answered this question many times. He took meaningful pause. He’d won the Houseman Poetry Prize as a mere freshman. His words came slowly.
“Tommy Watson,” he whispered.
The food arrived, providing my father with an opportunity to reengage the waitress: an exchange that my father was dangerously invested in.
“So, what makes Bonnie tick?” My father asked the waitress.
He would never attempt to fuck her or even buy her a drink, but in that moment the waitress felt the best of his love.
My father was not a true golfer. He played occasionally. We played with my grandfather, the retired headmaster and self-proclaimed Great American Sex Poet. Grenade shrapnel had finally gotten the better of the old leatherneck, so he divorced his wife of thirty-five years, moved to Atlanta, and swore off tennis in order to focus solely on golf. He enjoyed The Old City. He held court nightly at the clubhouse bar, and later, on to the best of Buckhead. But with my grandmother out of the picture his funds were running thin, so he settled down with a young Coca Cola heiress. He spoke freely as we shared a golf cart at his plantation style country club. I was ten.
“I do love your grandmother. She gave me three very successful boys. Just look at your father, he’s made a fortune in the trade-show business and although they’re no longer married, I know he still loves your mother very much and she him. How could you not love such a beautiful man. Hey buddy, between you and me I tasted the best of Georgia before finding my peach. Six Miss Georgias in six months, turns out I like my fruit sweet. You see, women aren’t that complicated, just attack them with flattering questions and never reveal anything true about yourself.”
Principal Owens collected every purple marker at John Diemer Elementary School and an hour later I was sitting across from that kindly bald man. He truly cared for me; he’d taken a special interest.
He handed over my purple marker and asked if it was mine.
“You know good and well it’s mine,” I responded.
As mentioned, he’d taken a special interest. I refused to do schoolwork since being accepted to the 2nd tier Protestant middle school. I was, at the time, being cared for by my maternal grandmother, and she wasn’t interested in schooling. According to her I had far more serious problems that only prayer could solve. She had spent many evenings trying to get the darkness out of my mind with prayer. She cared for me daily, my divorced parents being highly successful business owners with busy schedules.
Dr. Owens wanted to know why I would write those hurtful words: he had thought we were on friendly terms. He told me I had a “Jekyll and Hyde personality.” I wasn’t sure what that meant but I liked the sound of it. He showed me a Polaroid photograph of my work and, as I suspected, it all came down to our great respecter of ladies, the widely celebrated janitor of John Diemer Elementary School, Mr. Mortford.
Owens continued. “Mr. Mortford took 30 minutes out of his busy day to clean up your vandalism. Your marker’s ink is not water soluble, and that bathroom is painted a shade of lancer blue that is no longer available. Mr. Mortford’s not even sure if he has time to repaint the entire bathroom. He’s going to run some numbers, get some estimates. It might take a few days, but he’ll mix something up. That man knows his paints. Let’s just hope the boys down at Sherman Williams don’t try to steal him away. He would never leave us though. That man understands loyalty.”
I asked Owens if I was the only student who possessed such a purple aluminum German marker. He hesitated for a moment before informing me that I was not the only one. Believing I was in the clear, I asked about the other culprits. My heart sank when he gave the name and grade of our school’s only black student, a 2nd grader named Latrice Paris.
Latrice was tiny. The height of my words would have required her to use one of Mortford’s half-dozen ladders. Was she capable of dragging a ladder across the grounds of the school? I knew better than to accuse her outright. But Owens was holding out for a confession, a letter to Mortford and a one-on-one with Zollars, where she would be naming her terms. I would see him in the morning. The evening was mine.
I wanted to visit the John Diemer ladies’ room. A few days prior to this marker incident, I had been given the perfect opportunity. My granny sent word to the school that she would be late picking me up on account of an emergency prayer session with the wives of our city’s wealthiest men. When I reached the ladies’, Mortford, out of respect for feminine toilet-time, had blocked access with orange cones. He did not begin his ladies’ toilet work until the final bell had rung. I was very uncomfortable and needed to get into the ladies’ bathroom and smell that thin paper. Once in a locked stall I’d shimmy my way up those dividing walls, I’d slide the particle board aside and up into the ceiling I would go: to watch and feel better was always the plan. Sooner or later some lady would enter and go about her business.
John Diemer Elementary seized every opportunity to honor their janitor with plaques. In the eight years I attended Diemer the school held at least a half dozen assemblies honoring Mortford. He even received The Old Shawnee Indian Service Prize, a ceremony that brought out the highest-ranking district admins and even an individual from the state capital. The Old Shawnee Indian Service Prize ceremony began with a chronologically ordered photographic history of Mortford, starting with the early days.
Mortford had been with John Diemer since the very beginning and Diemer had known its fair share of principals and even a recently incarcerated speech therapist with a checkered past. But there had only been one Janitor, one Mortford, from day one. His life before Diemer was his business. Had there been other schools, other professions? He had a celebrated combat record, that much was clear, not that he wore his medals. He’d been captured, but had he ever been truly released? His Ford Ranger flew the flag of the worshiped prisoner, the black-and-white crest of the forgotten man, and he kept his old service revolver in the glove compartment. The photographic history began with a grainy image of the John Diemer ground-breaking. Mortford wasn’t cutting a ribbon; he didn’t have a brass shovel in his hand, and no one offered him a hard hat. But the eye was drawn to Mortford, just off to the side, long-handled broom at the ready.
It had been a rough start for John Diemer Elementary. By late November of that first fall semester, five sixth grade girls were showing ripe but remained silent, and Mortford, midway through his after-school duties, stumbled upon young Coach Riley attempting to abort his handy work. Mortford approached Riley from behind with an even shuffle, and being a staunch pro-lifer, regardless of context, he brought Coach Riley within an inch of his life with a black garbage bag. Thanks to Mortford, all five pregnant pre-teens carried to full term and despite being raised fatherless, on account of Riley’s 20-year imprisonment, all five boys kept the Riley name. The Riley boys went on to attend Diemer and although words were never exchanged, Mortford was at the ready for all five.
After the chronologically ordered photographic history, Coach Riley, a free man having paid his debts and having even completed seminary school while incarcerated, was given the honor of presenting Mortford with his prize. Pastor Riley could barely get Mortford’s name out between deep sobs and frequent hanky-blowing. Mortford approached the podium with an even shuffle, rejected the prize with a low nod, and addressed the business at hand. He held Riley for as long as it took. The final bell rang. We made our way out. The last I saw those two men, they were still embracing. The last I heard, one was screaming.
By denying my access to the ladies’ bathroom with cones, Mortford had created a deep hunger in me. As I wandered the John Diemer Elementary halls I encountered the destroyer of my dreams, the John Diemer theater and music director, Ms. Zollers, who was full of accusations.
“Where’s your ride? Who’s picking you up?”
I demanded she hold me and fought back tears as she hugged me tight. As I cupped that long-considered breast, I whispered softly into that musical ear:
“My mother’s dead.”
I assumed the loss of a mother entitled a young man to certain liberties. Ms. Zollers must have noticed that adult boner bulging from within my white bulldog-style swim trunks. In those days I was measuring my boner on a daily basis, and to my great pride and delight, it was growing.
I only got to relish a brief moment of breast cupping before she fought off my aristocratically long right arm. My first breast cupping was rejected, but she gave me that one magical moment, and I still cherish her breathless gasp: It still works for a quick cum when having sex with a woman I do not truly love.
Zollers knew that I was born for stage and screen. She focused on musical productions. But I forgot to compensate for being unable to sing at auditions. If you can’t sing, use your hands in an interesting fashion, use the body, bring a prop, dress up. I froze up every time and never made the cut.
I needed the stage. An acting career would have saved me. The removal of Zollers would have saved me. They would have brought in a 20-something homosexual, or a weekend drag queen. Gays worship me. Howard would have cursed Zollers’ neglect of my talent and, tweaking hard over a long weekend, Howie would have looked her up in the white pages and headed straight over. He would have laughed in her sober face and cracked her old wire rim glasses with his martini glass, blinding her. Zollers had an ass made for riding. That much was clear. At least that’s how I pictured it when I stroked slow and even. They were all riders back then.
I never confronted Latrice Paris. I’ll bet she’s some big-time surgeon/art collector by now. I ended up confessing to the whole deal: I wrote the Mortford letter, laid it on nice and thick for old Mortford, even asked if he’d consider taking me on over the summer as a junior janitor, but I never heard back from him. Those Riley boys got rich selling Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep, teamed up with Pastor Riley and opened a dealership just off I-435. Zollers wanted nothing to do with me. She never requested that one-on-one. I served a few days suspension and after a glorious summer I began 7th grade at the Protestant school.
— Calvin Atwood has written two novels, Banned from Laguna Beach and Banned from Bob’s Island. He also has a collection of short stories called Louis Armstrong Cured my Sex Addiction. You can find more of his writing at Expat, Misery Tourism and Forever Magazine among other places. He lives in New York City.