Everyone in Stone City knows Mr. Moss, the tall, portly civics and government teacher at Hilltop High. Or, think they do. Sometimes a hidden side of a personality does not emerge till later. Mr. Moss has been teaching for over thirty years, in the same tweed suit, pacing back and forth in front of his smeared blackboard, perorating on the complicated mechanisms of democracy. Three generations of farm kids and townies can claim to have participated in his extra-credit field trips to observe legislative sessions at the Statehouse. On the drive back from Indianapolis via Route 46, the bus routinely pulled over at Wee Willie’s for root beer and Mr. Moss ‘treated’.
Mr. Clayton Moss was fueled by root beer. Every day in class, using a straw, he slurped through a thirty-two ounce Big Gulp. It belied his otherwise austere demeanor. When addressing individual students, he attached a ‘Mister’ or a ‘Miss’ to their surnames. His basso voice wormed its way into the community’s mythology. “I felt like I was being lectured to by Mr. Moss,” was a common utterance over the back fence, as a way to describe a certain tone from a spouse. At the Hilltop High basketball games, Clayton Moss performed as the courtside announcer and he could make, “personal foul on Number Eleven”, sound like a mortal sin.
When interviewed by young reporters for the school newspaper about his retirement plans, he’d shrug and say, “They’re going to have to take me out in a pine box.” Because both parents lived to a great age (his dad wielding a chainsaw the day before he died at 98), it was assumed Mr. Moss would be in the job forever.
Aside from his large intake of root beer, Clayton Moss tried to watch the calories. His fondness for root beer started in childhood. His mother produced home-made crates of the stuff, although she never mastered the bottling process and many of the bottles exploded in the basement. On weekends, after allowing himself one pastry at the church coffee hour, Clayton hiked the towpath beside the canal with 5-lb. weights in his hands. He also gardened religiously in his front yard. The same crop of flowers rotated through the seasons. Daffodils, tulips, hyacinth, zinnias, four-o-clocks, chrysanthemums.
He was frequently seen dragging home fallen tree limbs from Mound Park. Like his parents and grandparents, he heated the gray saltbox home on Lincoln Street with a parlor stove. Mr. Moss actively maintained a supply of firewood that cured in a rick beside the garage. His students mimicked his recitation of the adage: ‘Firewood warms you four times, fellas, when you cut it, split it, stack it and burn it.”
His diet was plain and healthy enough, thanks to Connie Helms, a neighbor since childhood. She prepared his meals, including the sack lunch he brought to school daily. She vacuumed and cleaned and did his laundry, and teased him about being the messy one in the family. Clayton inherited Connie Helms from his parents. After their deaths, he moved back to Lincoln Street from his bachelor apartment above the hardware store and she kept showing up.
Connie embodied a chirpy loyalty. She’d worked for his parents seven days a week, wearing a white nurse’s uniform, even though she had no medical training. After they passed on, Clayton didn’t have the heart to tell Connie to stop coming. Also, he kind of enjoyed talking with her. They’d sit on the porch of an evening and converse for an hour. After her second glass of mint tea, Connie pulled off her nurse shoes and lifted her fat ankles up on the glass coffee table.
Passersby saw them and eventually started the rumor of a romantic attachment. There was a smidgen of truth to that. Both felt a sense of connection from many shared years on the same stretch of Lincoln Street, but it never went beyond a warm shake of the hand when she rose to leave. Their conversations were chatty and topical. Connie fancied herself a history buff and she’d test Mr. Moss’ presidential knowledge with questions like, “What does the ‘G’ stand for in Warren G. Harding?”
Clayton Moss enjoyed Connie’s circuitous, digressive style, which matched his own rambling classroom presentations that usually ended with a five-minute recap, attempting to retrace the steps by which he had ended up musing on Martin Van Buren and the campaign of 1840 and the origin of the term, ‘OK’.
“Now, how did we ever get onto this?’ Connie would say, “Let’s see…we were speaking about Prophet Town, across the border in Illinois…”
“Right, it was named for Tecumseh’s brother.”
Their evening talks became a way to keep their aging minds active. Likewise the crosswords in the three newspapers (Terre Haute, Indianapolis, and Louisville) that Mr. Moss received every morning and that Connie filled-in during her lunch break. She’d get as far as she could, and leave the puzzles spread out on the kitchen table for him to complete when he got home from school.
Their conversations took on a more personal tone when Mr. Moss began to confess some difficulty with the puzzles, and some worry about his professional abilities. “I don’t know, Connie. It’s confusing. I’ve been hearing from Coach Grunwald, our basketball coach, about colleagues who walk into the gym one afternoon and realize, this is it, this is the last day.”
His classroom was getting tougher to handle, he revealed. The root beer wasn’t helping as much as it used to. Mr. Moss felt fatigued in the afternoons.
“Time to think about retirement?” Connie asked.
“I can’t,” he said, “no idea what I’d do.”
“Your dad liked to play board games,” Connie said, “We’d play Scrabble after supper. He preached a three-things rule. If you ever want to retire, Connie, he’d tell me, you have to have three things to keep yourself busy.”
“‘Just carry me out in a pine box.’ That’s what I say to the student newspaper,” Clayton growled.
“I know you’d miss your teaching and the students,” Connie said, “You feel like you’re making a contribution to their young lives.”
“It’s more than that,” Clayton said, “When I’m up there in front of the class, discoursing on structural features like checks and balances and the establishment of the Justice Department post-Civil War, ironically enough, thanks to Ulysses S. Grant, I sometimes feel that it’s all still happening and that I am an integral part of the ongoing experiment that is America.”
“Keeping the flame alight,” Connie observed, “you and the Statue of Liberty.”
Mr. Moss smiled and said, “But the students are no longer willing receptacles for my wit and wisdom. The subject of civics and government, for decades considered relatively straightforward, boring even, is becoming slippery and contentious.”
“How so?” Connie asked.
“It used to be that falling asleep in class was the worst behavior that I had to encounter. It used to be that the most loaded debates were about the filibuster and gerrymandering. Now I have to field ludicrous questions from the gullible offspring of right-wing hotheads.”
The prime offender was Zeke Deckard, a skinny, buzzcut kid from a clan of stonemasons who lived near the quarry. Zeke needled Mr. Moss with questions about pedophile rings that secretly ran Congress and illegal aliens forging welfare checks. It wasn’t a class clown thing or showing off for the ladies. Zeke was smart and determined and genuinely seemed to believe all this extremist crap. Even worse, he spearheaded a habit among the students of recording teachers’ lectures on their cell phones. Mr. Moss tried to tolerate this invasion of his classroom, because many of his students used the recordings to prepare for quizzes and exams. However, Zeke posted video clips of Mr. Moss to social media sites with disparaging commentary about ‘commie’ instructors.
Mr. Moss did his best to ignore all this folderol and to embed his own middle-of-the-road views in open dialogue. He cleared his throat and politely parried Zeke’s questions and re-directed the class’ attention back to the textbook discussion. “Thank you for your input, Mister Deckard. I am certainly glad to hear about your interest in current events. Honestly, the citizens I worry about the most are the ones who don’t give a fig about how our government works.”
Mr. Moss continued to put his trust in common sense. “Hoosier common sense will eventually win the day,” he told Connie Helms, “and thank goodness, gadfly Zeke is graduating in May.”
It couldn’t come soon enough. Mr. Moss gave Zeke an ‘A’ on the final exam to make sure he got the diploma. At Hilltop High’s year-end staff meeting, Mr. Moss heard from Larry, the vice-principal, that Zeke Deckard had enrolled at Vincennes University for an associates degree in criminology, a common entry step for a career in law enforcement. Mr. Moss allowed himself to think that his civics class had been a positive influence.
“Say what you will about cops,” Mr. Moss told Larry, “No one can become a law enforcement official without having a little common sense.”
Things went along well enough after that for another couple of years. In the mornings, Mr. Moss breakfasted earlier and changed his walking route to school, extending it a few minutes. Instead of crossing the courthouse square, he climbed up through the settlers’ cemetery to pause at his ancestors’ graves. Connie read and recommended a column in the Sunday newspaper about making gratitude lists. Clayton Moss started a weather journal and learned to recognize birdsongs. He complained about the disappearance of double-edge razor blades from the pharmacy. He ceased shaving and grew a long, curly beard. Connie teased him about joining a Benjamin Harrison Lookalike Club.
Connie Helms, bless her heart, discreetly contacted the powers-that-be in Stone City. Larry, the vice-principal, and Beth, the Mayor’s secretary, and Mrs. Fosdick, of the Women’s Garden Club. Connie let it be known that Mr. Moss needed some bucking up. It came in the form of a special commendation for his thirty plus years of teaching and the Mayor’s designation of August 2nd as ‘Mr. Moss Day’ and the Garden Club’s selection of his yard for their annual tour.
At the next Statehouse session, the legislature passed a concealed-carry law for public schools, and this was the straw that almost broke the camel’s back. Sparked by an increase in school shootings, the legislature voted overwhelmingly to require at least fifty percent of the academic staff in every public school to be armed. Supposedly, that would deter an evil-doer. At first, Mr. Moss thought this law would force his retirement. Not that he was opposed to the Second Amendment or skittish about firearms. He knew his way around guns from hunting deer and grouse with his dad. It was more a matter of comfort. The holster and pistol under his suit jacket caused bruising in his armpit and sweat-soaked shirts and an unsightly bulge.
“The students are always hassling me to show them the gat,” Mr. Moss complained to Connie on the porch, “They think it’s cool.”
“I don’t believe anybody calls it a ‘gat’ anymore,” Connie said, “That’s only in the crossword puzzles.”
“Yet more proof that the world is passing me by,” Mr. Moss said.
He adapted to the concealed-carry situation by taking off his jacket in class and using the holstered weapon as a visual prompt for discussions about majority rule versus minority rights and the definition of public safety.
But the State Legislature wasn’t done yet, oh, no, thanks to a hog-farmer-cum-elder-statesman from Martinsville and a rookie firebrand from Kokomo. Together, they strong-armed their delegation into passing another backlash edict, making it illegal to mention you-know-what in the classroom.
To the surprise of everyone, Connie Helms included, the result of this legislation was a galvanized Clayton Moss. It was a sight to behold. Still super tweedy, still slurping his root beer, still pacing deliberately back and forth in front of his blackboard, Mr. Moss lectured operatically, basso profundo, on the 1920s dominance of the Indiana Statehouse by the Ku Klux Klan. Always an advocate of using primary sources, he became more so, taking class time to read aloud passages from Dr. King.
The stress took a toll on him. He experienced difficulty sleeping through the night. He’d wake at 3 a.m. and wait for the dawn and the thump of newspapers on the porch. He stopped gardening and chopping wood and exercising, except for sporadic, sudden stop-and-drop pushups. His woodpile dwindled. Figuring he was doing Connie a favor, he brought home take-out suppers from Wee Willie’s. Tenderloin sandwiches and sweet-potato fries. Comfort food that didn’t provide much comfort, often leaving him with indigestion.
The urgent note from Larry, the vice-principal, was delivered to his classroom during a Monday lunch hour. Mr. Moss found it when he got back from a short nap in the staff lounge. “Please stop by my office after class ends today. An agent from the Education Commissioner wants to speak with you.” Mr. Moss blinked and re-read the note and muttered, “Fine, bring it on.”
The situation became more complicated when Mr. Moss entered Larry’s office at 3:30 p.m. and saw the official awaiting him was none other than Zeke Deckard, still buzzcut, with a pair of sunglasses perched on his skull. The kid had put on weight. Zeke introduced himself, with a smile, as a Homeland Security agent on special assignment to Department of Education. “We’re investigating several reports of classroom violations by teachers ignoring the new statute against teaching white shame.”
“Mister Deckard, how nice to see you again,” Mr. Moss said, “You appear to be making your way in the world.”
Zeke nodded and grinned and said, “That is one serious beard, dude.”
Mr. Moss leaned down to his Big Gulp. He thrust the plastic straw into his thick beard and slurped at his root beer. Larry coughed and, clearly uncomfortable, stood up and fiddled with his tie clip. He said, “I’ll leave you two alone to hash this out.”
“Nope, sorry, the regulations require you to stay,” Zeke Deckard said, “We need a witness.”
The vice-principal reluctantly sat down.
“Just for the record,” Zeke added, “I’ll also need some video documentation.” He grinned and took out his phone and held it up to make a recording of the interaction. “Hey, it’s just like the old days in class.”
“Well now, Agent Deckard, exactly what are you threatening me with?” Mr. Moss asked, “Am I going to get fired? Are we going to end up in court?”
“Nothing quite so drastic, I hope,” Zeke said, “especially since we have some personal history, you and me. I am obviously aware of your long career at Hilltop High and I think this situation can be resolved with a simple promise to cease and desist from these classroom violations. Another option is for you to decide that now is the appropriate time to retire.”
“In other words, a forced retirement,” Mr. Moss said.
“Nobody but us three would have to know that,” Zeke said, turning to Larry, “am I right?”
The vice-principal mumbled his agreement.
“Oh, thanks, Larry,” Mr. Moss said.
“Of course, you’d be able to keep your pension,” Larry said.
“That’s very considerate. Also, Agent Deckard would get the privilege of boasting to his buddies at their tenth reunion that he took down pinko Mr. Moss.”
Larry said, “Please, Clayton, let’s not be confrontational.”
“I am not the one who started it,” Mr. Moss said. He reached into his suit jacket and pulled out his pistol and checked to make sure it was loaded.
Zeke Deckard winced and gestured for Mr. Moss to return the gun to his holster. All in a day’s work for a Homeland Security agent. He said, “Let me remind you that our meeting is being recorded on video.”
“Yes, for all posterity,” Clayton Moss said, “Mr. Deckard, you have in fact offered me the perfect out. I am able to both retire from teaching and remain in the classroom forever.”
“I’m not following you exactly,” Zeke said.
“Just take me out in a pine box,” Mr. Moss said.
“Please, don’t do this,” Larry said, “Think about your legacy.”
“Across the country, instructors and students will be discussing this moment for decades to come,” Mr. Moss said.
Agent Deckard turned off the video. “I don’t want anybody getting hurt here,” he said, “Just trying to rattle your cage. You put the gun away. Let’s agree to disagree. I’ll make a note that a warning was issued. Believe me, I do not want to be known for eliminating Wee Willie’s best customer.”
“Please, Clayton,” Larry said, “think about Connie.”
“She’s used to cleaning up after me.”
“Don’t be a martyr,” Larry pleaded, “We don’t need any more martyrs.”
Somewhere in the dark recesses of Mr. Moss’ root-beer-soaked heart, the mention of Connie hit home. Clayton Moss started thinking about her, and soon realized that he couldn’t stop thinking about her. On the walk back from school that afternoon, he pondered the three-things rule, and that night, on the porch, they each made a list. After hearing Clayton’s description of the meeting in Larry’s office, Connie convinced him to add a fourth item to his list – ‘run for School Board’.
Ian Woollen lives and writes in Bloomington, Indiana. His recent short fiction has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Five South, and North Dakota Quarterly. A new novel, Sister City, is out from Coffeetown Press. Ian recommends the Shalom Community Center.