Lucinda collapsed on the bed and immediately went into a deep sleep. Only minutes seemed to have passed when another knock at the door interrupted her rest. Looking at the alarm clock on the nightstand, she saw it was already a little after five o’clock.
“Listen,” Nancy said from the other side of the door. “We gotta talk.”
“Of course.” Lucinda stood and went directly to her rocket and sat. “Come in.”
“Somehow Shirley has heard the name Vernon Singleberry, and I don’t like it.” She stood in front of the old teacher. Her hands were on her hips.
“Shirley’s a very bright young lady, and she deserves to know the truth.”
“Maybe someday.” She narrowed her eyes and shook a finger at Lucinda. “But not now and for damn sure not from you.”
The old woman rubbed her chest and tried to show a knowing smile. “She already knows the story about the movie star is foolish. That’s why she doesn’t like school.”
“What’s so bad about not likin’ school?” she asked with a sneer. “I hated school.”
“Don’t you want better for Shirley?” Lucinda leaned forward in her rocker.
“What the hell’s wrong with being a beautician?” Nancy folded her arms across her chest and pinched her lips.
“Nothing. It’s just that—“
“Stop it,” she interrupted with acid on her tongue. “I ain’t your student no more. You ain’t nobody’s teacher no more. Nobody cares what you think. Git it?”
“Yes.” Lucinda fell back in her chair.
“If you don’t stop this, I’m goin’ to tell everyone the truth.” Nancy stepped closer and lowered her voice ominously. “You had the hots for Vernon. Yeah, I know about the time you fell all over him. Vernon was so dumb he thought you had lost your balance, but I knew you wanted to cop a feel. Do you want these old biddies to know about that?”
“No,” she replied, too tired to fight back.
“Good. We understand each other. Don’t talk about Vernon again.” Nancy turned and slammed the door on her way out.
Lucinda breathed deeply and found herself swept back to her classroom. When she saw Vernon enter she smiled. He wore another sweater and, for once, has no books in his arms.
“Mrs. Cambridge?” He asked hesitantly. “May I speak to you a moment?”
“Vernon. I’m so glad you came back.” She smiled. “You’ve really been a comfort to me today.”
“Oh. Then maybe I should come back another time. I’ve got a problem.” Vernon shuffled his feet and looked down.
“Don’t mind me.” Lucinda motioned to a chair. “You know I always told you to come to me when you’ve got a problem.”
“Thank you.” He sat but kept his head down.
“Well, what is it?” Lightly touching the tips of her fingers, she asked, “Some assignment giving you trouble?”
“Coach Cummins harassing you again about your game playing?” She was running out of possibilities.
Her hands went to her face as Lucinda straightened in her chair. “This is right before Christmas of your sophomore year, isn’t it?”
“It’s Nancy Meyers.” She felt a knot tighten in her stomach.
“I remember now,” she whispered.
“Mrs. Cambridge, I love Nancy very much.” He paused to search for the right words. “She’s the only girl who’s ever cared for me.”
“Oh, I’m sure others—“
“I mean,” he interrupted her, “she’s the only one who thought — who took me seriously as — you know, as someone you might want to love and — maybe — spend the rest of your life with. And I do, I do want to spend the rest of my life with her.” Vernon paused. “But not starting right now.”
“And it’s your baby.”
“If we get married right now.” His eyes strayed out the window. “ I’d have to take fewer classes so I could work.”
“But you can’t take less than twelve hours or—“
“Or I’ll be drafted and sent to Vietnam,” he finished his sentence. A grimace darkened his face. “I don’t want to go to Vietnam. I’m afraid I’ll die there.” Vernon put his head down into the palms of his hands and cried.
Lucinda’s impulse was to go to him and put her arms around him, but she restrained herself, remembering the previous incident. “Vernon, Vernon, that’s all right.”
“I don’t know what to do.” He shook his head.
“There, there.” She thought if she continued to sit there she would begin to cry herself.
“Damn. Only babies cry,” he chided under his breath.
“Are you sure? Sometimes girls think they’re pregnant and they’re really not.”
“It’s for real.” He nodded, now staring at the floor. “She went to the doctor today.”
Without thinking about what she was doing, Lucinda stood to go to the chalk board and wrote the word “parents” as though she were about to parse a sentence. “How about your parents? Do you think they would help out enough to allow you to maintain a full class load?”
“My old man?” Vernon snorted. “You must be kidding.”
“Her parents?” She began to add those words to her list.
“They don’t have any money to spare.” He shrugged. “They’re as poor as we are.”
“Or least that’s what she says.” Her hand holding the chalk stayed motionless.
“Yeah.” Sniffing, Vernon sat up straight and looked at Lucinda with an incredulous glare. “That’s not a very nice thing to say.”
She turned back to Vernon, rolling the chalk between her hands. “I don’t know how to say this without hurting your feelings, Vernon, but Nancy isn’t as nice as you think.”
“What do you mean?” He took a handkerchief out and wiped his eyes.
“Well, she lies. I caught her in several lies when she was in my English class.” Lucinda wagged the piece of chalk at him. “She was very irresponsible about homework.”
“I don’t believe this.” Vernon stood. “Just because someone doesn’t turn in their homework you think they’re evil?”
“I didn’t say she was evil. But other teachers have told me—“
“Here this poor girl is carrying a baby out of marriage and all you can talk about is what kind of student she is?” He shook his head in disbelief.
“It’s more than that.” Lucinda noticed how she was using the chalk and put it down. “I just began with that.”
“When I came in here I thought you’d give me some good advice. Some help.” Vernon turned toward the door. “I never thought you’d attack Nancy.”
“I’m not attacking Nancy.” She pounced on the word “attack” to giver herself a platform for her defense. “She’s always been civil to me. It’s just what I’ve heard—“
“I never thought you’d stoop to petty gossip.” He kept walking out.
:This is a hard question for me to ask — but are you sure you’re the only one she’s been to bed with?” Lucinda lurched toward him. “Are you sure you’re the father?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Cambridge.” He turned to assess her with a cold eye. “I didn’t know what to do until I came in here.”
“I didn’t know if I wanted to marry her or not. Now I know I have to marry, if for nothing else than to protect her from vicious gossips — like you.” The last words he spat with hot anger.
“So now I know what I’m going to do. I’ll take nine hours next spring. That will leave time for a full time job to support my wife and my baby — yes, my baby.”
Lucinda noticed his voice was fading back into her memory. Vernon’s image floated between the classroom of ten years ago and her boarding house room of today. “Vernon! Don’t do that! It’s a mistake! Vernon!”
“I have just one last thing.” He pointed out the door into the boarding house hall. “Nancy’s little girl. She’s mine, ain’t she?”
“Isn’t, not ain’t,” she said, slipping back into her old ways.
“I’ll say ain’t if I damn well want to!” For the first time in front of his teacher, Vernon raised his voice in rage.
“She’s my little girl, ain’t she?”
“Ain’t she!?” He lost all control of his emotions.
“Yes.” Completely depleted, Lucinda collapsed into her rocking chair, now firmly affixed to the present. Her hand went to her chest.
“I’m a daddy.”
“She’s lovely — and smart.” Lucinda closed her eyes and smiled. “She has this way of seeing the world clearly, like you.”
“She’s smart.” His voice was fading like an echo.
“Very.” She rocked slowly, comforted by her mind’s images of Shirley.
“And good. I want my little girl to be good.” His voice was hardly discernible.
“No sweeter child ever lived.”
“I wonder what she thinks of her goofy old daddy.” Vernon laughed loudly.
Lucinda’s eyes opened, her consciousness jostled to harsh reality. “Well . . . .”
“What?” His laugh evaporated.
“She doesn’t know.”
“Who does she think her daddy is?”
The very absurdity of the words caused Lucinda’s breath to become labored. “Nancy told her Warren Beatty, but Shirley doesn’t believe it.”
“Nancy named her after Beatty’s sister, Shirley MacLaine.” She covered her mouth with her hand to hide her quivering lips.
“That’s an old lady’s name.”
“That’s what Shirley says.”
“So she doesn’t know about me?”
Lucinda closed her eyes again and shook her head.
“You live in the same house, and you haven’t told her?”
His voice invaded her being and was intolerable. With all her strength she whispered, “It’s not up to me to tell her. I keep hoping Nancy will explain it.”
“The only thing I ever made that turned out good, and she doesn’t know I even existed?” Vernon’s voice weakened again, going down into the darkness of unpleasant memories.
“It’s not up to me.” All she could do was to repeated herself.
“I don’t exist for my baby.”
Lucinda’s native, irrational optimism gave her strength. “She’ll know someday. You’ll see.”
“Maybe I won’t.” His voice was almost gone. “Maybe Nancy will forget all about me before she tells Shirley. Then I’ll really be gone. Nobody will care.”
“I care.” Lucinda more than cared, but she did not have the courage to admit her feelings to Vernon.
“No, you don’t. Nobody cares.”
The words were vaporous, and she almost did not discern them. When she opened her eyes, Vernon was gone, and someone was knocking at her door.