Storyglossia Issue 31, November 2008.

Missed Connections

by Peter Sheehy








When the city finally broke with riots, Principal Kirby of James K. Polk Elementary School in East Hollywood told his teachers to keep the kids all in one room, the music room, with the piano and the cymbals and drums and, tacked to the wall, this poster lettered in script blue writing that read "The Cool Instrument" with an image of a golden saxophone beneath it.

In the music teacher's closet, Ms. Coca found a dusty Sony radio. She set it down on the wood desk by the freestanding chalkboard in the front of the room and moved the antenna back and forth while the broadcaster's voice broke in and out. "As you probably," the broadcaster said and the rest of it was white noise, until, " . . . in the sky, this cloud over the city." The teachers—Ms. Coca and Ms. Gonzalez and Mr. Gessner—all three looked out the milky windows of the music room and there it was, a great gray cloud of smoke and smog hovering just beyond the hills. Parents were being called from the two telephones in the main office. Ms. Gonzalez, the older of the two women but still unmarried at her age, told the kids to stay away from the instruments, please, it's too much noise, stop banging on the drums, bang bang rat tat tat tat.

The kids stopped, and all that could be heard then was the metallic echo of a snare drum's beads, vibrating against the drumhead, catching the kids' hushed voices. And there was the broadcaster's voice, saying, "It's been a few hours and still police cannot contain the mobs of angry people."

It didn't last, though, the relative quiet, and before long the noise and the clatter swelled again, punctuated with bangs.

It went on like that, in waves. Between beats, when the room was quiet, Donnie Huber went to the teacher's desk and asked, "Are we going home?" Ms. Coca looked to Ms. Gonzalez and then back down to Donnie. "Donnie, just sit tight," she said.

They waited for the parents to arrive.















One by one and two by two, help arrived. The parents came for their kids. They pulled into the parking lot and hastily parked their cars. Some of the parents knew each other and made small talk while they rushed together towards the school, peering over their shoulders at the mushrooming sky behind them. Some hugged or simply held hands.

Principal Kirby, a man like a pitcher of warm cream, greeted the parents in the hall when they entered the building. He told one couple, just as he had told the others, "It's going to be all right" and "Thank you for coming so quickly," ushering them into the music room where some of the kids pounded on the drums, with soft mallets clutched in their little fists, while others stood around and watched, wanting a turn. A girl sat at the old piano. Donnie was talking to another boy about a birthday party they were both invited to later that day. Donnie said, "I bet I can beat you at Contra," and then added, "I'm so good at that game."

"Do you know the codes?" the other boy said.

At the front of the room, Mr. Gessner chatted with the father of one of his students about the young major league baseball season. Ms. Gonzalez talked with the mother, who stood with her hands on her son's shoulders, holding the boy in place in front of her. Eventually, as the adults talked on, the boy wriggled free and rejoined his classmates.

Sitting on top of the teacher's desk was Ms. Coca, with her legs crossed, half-listening to the radio by her side. She looked out over the classroom, at the kids in the back fighting over drumsticks. The broadcaster said something about "Molotov cocktails."












When it got too quiet there were the distant wails of sirens and the teachers didn't want that so they let the kids drown it out. A thumping bass drum like an arrhythmic heart, beating in the streets. Mr. Gessner placed his hand atop Ms. Coca's on the desk. The beginning notes to "The Entertainer" on the piano. Wrong notes, and then it started over. Ms. Coca hoped the kids could drown it all out.

"It's been boiling over for days now," Mr. Gessner said. "It was bound to happen like this."

"How can you say that?" Ms. Coca said.

"All I'm saying is, it's no surprise. And in some ways it's necessary."

A man swooped into the room and called out, "Danielle!" Mr. Gessner motioned to the girl at the piano and the girl stopped playing mid-song and hopped off the bench, balancing her dismount with her palm on the keys, a clang of dissonant notes. She waved to two of her classmates. She walked over to her father who scooped her up in a big bear hug.

The classroom began to thin out. Donnie waited, thrumming a cymbal with his fingers while his friend shook a maraca. Donnie's friend said, "It's so cool we get to go home."

Donnie nodded. "So what're you gonna play first?" Donnie said.

"Definitely Rampage. That game's the best."

In the parking lot parents again exchanged handshakes and returned to their cars with their sons and daughters safely in tow. One man, before getting into the driver's seat of a station wagon, stared out at the sky, over the hills, to where the smoke hung in the air.

Principal Kirby appeared in the doorway of the music room and surveyed the scene. He looked to the kids who still waited for their parents to arrive, still hopping from instrument to instrument, and Ms. Gonzalez, who sat with her fingers massaging her temples, and to Ms. Coca and Mr. Gessner, who gathered around the teacher's desk and talked in fragments about revolution and justice.















Then there were seven. Even Ms. Gonzalez had gone home, complaining of a headache. The students that remained, having finally tired of the instruments, sat at their desks. The broadcaster on the radio said, "There have now been six confirmed fatalities," and Ms. Coca briefly switched the radio to a country music station before shutting it off completely. She looked to Mr. Gessner, who was watching the door. A hysterical mother showed up, escorted into the room by Principal Kirby. The woman promptly left with her son. Then there were six.

Donnie's friend had been picked up already, so Donnie watched the parking lot through the window. There were only a few cars out there. Sirens still cried. Over the distant wails, the ticking of the wall clock echoed through the room. Ms. Coca leaned against the windowsill, with her back to Mr. Gessner, and tapped a finger against the pane of glass.

"Children, I'm sure your parents will be here any minute," she said without turning her head from the window.












And Donnie was the last student left. He watched the clock—the birthday party had started already. He avoided looking either Ms. Coca or Mr. Gessner in the eyes. There was no reason for both teachers to remain, as long as Principal Kirby was there, but they did anyway. Principal Kirby had even told Ms. Coca she was free to leave, but she stayed.

As a way of finding common ground, Ms. Coca whispered to Mr. Gessner, "Who would leave their son here like this?" She pointed her eyes towards Donnie. Donnie sat at his desk, his head resting down on his folded arms.

"I've met them," Mr. Gessner said, covering his mouth with his hand. "Fucking hippies."

Their whispers were as loud as gunshots.

Donnie lifted his head and stared out the window. In the parking lot, Principal Kirby leaned against the hood of his car, and the smoke was suspended in the sky above him.







Copyright©2008 Peter Sheehy

Peter Sheehy lives in San Francisco, California, a town he is happy to call his adoptive home. A graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, he hails from Long Island, New York. He is 25.