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"Nifty little talk, Mr. Austin."
The kid's eyes mocked me from the recesses of a hooded gray sweatshirt. I'd used the word earlier to describe a research app that had proved helpful to me. The kid was throwing the word back in my face. I chose to let it go and focus on the larger insult.
"Speech. It was a speech," I corrected him. He was playing to his buddies a few feet away.
The kid smirked. "And that prize thing ... like, wow!"
"It's the Pulitzer, son, not some whistle ring you pull out of a box of Cracker Jacks."
"Yeah, whatever ..."
I walked the open hallway. Ten years separated me from my graduation. This wasn't my high school anymore. The buildings were the same, but the occupants had changed. Everywhere I looked there were hooded sweatshirts. Since when had my alma mater become a school for Unabomber groupies?
Swept along in a river of adolescent angst — an endless stream of tattoos, piercings, colorful swatches of hair, studded leather chokers, and black lipstick — I tracked the smart-mouthed kid as he passed. He joined his pod of friends, casting himself as the hero who'd gotten under the skin of some old geezer. They looked my way and laughed.
What is it about high school that brings out the worst in the human species? All my teenage insecurities, like faithful old dogs, were waiting for me when I stepped on campus, and had been nipping at my heels all morning.
I had an overwhelming urge to grab the kid by the scruff of his neck and take him on, to teach him a thing or two about respect.
Instead, I told myself I wasn't going to sink to his level. What difference did it make if some identity-challenged adolescent didn't appreciate the magnitude of my literary achievement? I told myself to let it go. I was the mature one here.
Breaking eye contact with him, I turned forward and walked smack into a metal pole.
A pair of coeds, one plump and one rail thin, gasped. Their hands flew to their mouths, at first in shock, but then to hide their giggles.
A wiry-haired boy with a serious acne problem laughed openly. "Ouch! That's gotta hurt!"
He was just glad it wasn't him.
"Are you all right, sir?" the plump coed asked.
"Do you want us to take you to the nurse's station?"
I cringed as the image flashed in my mind. Me, with a coed under each arm, being assisted out of the fast lane.
I assured the girls I was fine. I struck a fine pose — more than fine, robust, virile — and continued on my way, eager to put them, the pole, and the incident behind me.
A buzzer sounded. The corridor cleared rapidly as students disappeared into open doorways like water pouring down drains.
With the hallway to myself, I rubbed my forehead and wondered if the pole had left a mark. A familiar spring breeze swirled past me. And without the distraction of students, my thoughts turned nostalgic.
The outdoor stucco walls were the same mud-brown color I remembered, the doors aqua-blue. The open central corridor still stretched the length of the campus, with alternating wings of classrooms and grassy lawns on each side.
Approaching one of my former classrooms, I peered inside. A small, redheaded woman with a hairstyle that predated my lifetime stood in front of the classroom. She wielded a wooden pointer like it was a broadsword. Behind her was a map of Gettysburg with red and blue arrows indicating troop movements.
I turned toward the voice behind me to find a smiling, horseshoe-bald Hispanic man with a thick, black mustache. He held a sheaf of papers in one hand. Extending his other hand, he introduced himself. "Carlos Ruiz Mendoza." His smile widened, revealing a gold tooth.
"Austin. Yeah, I know. The assembly. Congratulations, by the way. The Pulitzer. Quite an achievement."
I shrugged modestly but didn't disagree. "Are you a teacher?" I asked.
"Remedial reading." He said it like he was apologizing. "The way I see it, if I do my job, by the time my students complete the course they'll actually be able to read your book. They won't, of course."
We both laughed.
"It's not exactly Game of Thrones," I admitted.
Mendoza motioned toward the classroom. "Do you know Rose?"
Inside the classroom the teacher, Rose, had leveled her broadsword at a sandy-haired student who slumped in his chair and stared at her defiantly.
"I haven't had the pleasure," I said. "This was Coach Walker's room when I was here."
"Walker ... quite a character from what I hear," Mendoza said. "He passed on two years before I arrived. Stories still circulate, though."
I laughed. "Believe them. Walker knew only one way of doing things — as a football lineman coach. History, football, it was all the same to him."
"Were you on the team?"
"Football? No. Tennis was my sport. But Walker coached it too. The man didn't know a foot fault from a double fault, but he had us in great shape. We were the only team in the district doing bear crawls on the courts."
"But I learned some valuable life lessons from him," I added. "If nothing else, Coach taught us to hustle. I learned that hustle can beat superior talent; not always, but often enough."
"Got me where I am today."
By silent agreement, we continued down the corridor.
"I didn't have the smarts for scholarships," I explained. "Worked my way through college throwing baggage around at the local airport and pinching pennies."
"Ah, the Cup o' Noodles degree," Mendoza said.
I grinned. "You too?"
"Midnight shift at a 24-hour convenience store."
I liked this man.
With matching strides, we walked in silence for a moment, then he said, "You've come a long way since your microwave soup days, Austin. The Oval Office. Air Force One. The G-8 Summit in Paris. Few men get to see the things you've seen."
"I'm glad someone was listening to my speech."
Mendoza gave me a sideways glance. "Was school assembly behavior all that different when you attended?"
"I guess not," I admitted. "In one the music teacher stopped his orchestra mid-concert because we started batting a beach ball in the stands."
Mendoza nodded. "Some are better than others. Last month we had a band ... a rhythm group, actually. They beat on trash cans, banged lids, swished brooms, that sort of thing. They were good. The students loved them."
"So you're saying if I want to make a hit with teenagers, I need to bang trash can lids together."
"Of course not," Mendoza scoffed. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, "But it wouldn't hurt."
"I'll take that under advisement."
"Seriously, Grant — long after the din of trash can lids fades away, what you have done will be remembered and revered. The Pulitzer Prize, son! They don't hand those out in Cracker Jack boxes!" "Seems I've heard that somewhere before."
"You are, without doubt, the most famous alumnus this school has produced."
I thanked him as humbly as I could. But, truth was, I'd traveled the width of the country to hear those words. If only Myles Shepherd had heard them, my day would have been complete.
"Coming back here," Mendoza continued, "after all the exotic places you've been, all the famous people you've met, this must seem rather mundane to you."
"I don't know," I replied. "Singing Hills High will always be a part of who I am."
Mendoza pulled up in front of a door labeled faculty. He offered his hand again. "I'm glad I had this chance to chat with you, Mr. Austin. Something to tell my grandchildren someday."
Before he disappeared through the door, I said, "One thing more, Mr. Mendoza, where is Myles Shepherd's classroom?
"Shepherd? Sure. First room on the last wing."
I thanked him and continued down the corridor, my spirits much improved. There's something satisfying about hearing a teacher call you "Mister." I made a mental note to send Mendoza a signed copy of my book.
Upon reaching the last wing, I peered through the louvered windows and caught my own reflection. I was grinning like a man about to burst at the seams. And why not? I'd waited a decade for this day to arrive, and I wanted to savor every second of it.
This morning, as I dressed for the assembly, I told myself I wasn't going to gloat, that I was going to take the high road. But now that I was here, all I had were low-road thoughts.
I peered into the room. It was empty. In the front right, a door stood open. The teacher's office. A light spilled out from inside.
Shepherd was in there.
I was almost surprised. It would have been just like him to deprive me of my moment of triumph.
The door was unlocked. I let myself in.
The threshold proved to be a time portal. As I walked between the rows of desks, I was seventeen again with books under my arm and worries that I'd forgotten to do my homework swirling in my head. I trod the same scuffed, green-tile floor that I'd stared at while straining to remember answers to test questions. Even the assignment on the chalkboard could have been one I'd copied down years ago —
Chapters 45–47 for Thursday TERM PAPERS DUE IN TWO WEEKS!
I ran my fingertips across the top of a desk. Suddenly, the past gave way to a sobering thought.
Mendoza had pegged it, hadn't he? The room. The studies. The students. The repetitious routine. All of it was ordinary. Commonplace. Mundane.
I couldn't believe that for years I had allowed myself to be haunted by Myles Shepherd's teaching success. For what? For this? Look at it! Shepherd's grand kingdom consisted of nothing more than row after row of graffiti-marred desks with chewing gum stuck to the undersides.
"Grant? Is that you?"
I approached the office door of my old nemesis and poked my head inside. My first impression? Cramped. Books defined the decor. Books squeezed vertically and horizontally into every inch of shelf space. Books stacked on top of shelves, on chairs, on the floor, on other books. In the center of the room, a gray metal desk dominated the floor space. Binders and folders of every color formed what looked like a New York city block of towers. On the working side of the desk was a small stack of papers, which were being graded. The top sheet was heavily slashed with red marks.
"Grant! Welcome to my snuggery!" Myles Shepherd half rose from his chair. He extended his hand across the desk. His grip had no more warmth than that of a car salesman.
"Sit! Sit!" he cried. "Just move those books anywhere."
He motioned to two student chairs with identical three-ring binder towers. I managed to relocate one of them to the floor without toppling it or setting off an avalanche.
I situated the chair in front of the desk and sat. The chair was smaller than it looked. I felt like Papa Bear sitting in Baby Bear's chair.
Looking down on me, Shepherd made no attempt to hide his amusement. I didn't care. There was only one Pulitzer Prize winning author in this room and it wasn't him.
"So, you took the time to stop by," Shepherd said. "I wasn't sure you would, now that you're famous."
"And miss this opportunity to see you? I've been looking forward to it." And that was the truth. "You're looking good, Myles."
It was an understatement. He looked great. Tanned. Fit. Not only had he not lost any hair, but his neatly trimmed style looked fuller and thicker than it had in high school.
He still had that killer combination of pale blue eyes and dimpled smile that turned women's knees to butter. The cleft in his chin sealed the deal. He looked more like a movie celebrity than a high school teacher. He was one of those guys who looked better in person than in his publicity pictures.
A tweed sports coat was draped over the back of his chair. Blue oxford sleeves rolled midway up muscular forearms. His collar was unbuttoned and his red tie loose.
"I suppose congratulations are in order," he said.
He swiveled around so that the back of his chair was facing me. I could hear three-ring binders toppling. When he swiveled back, he was holding a thick book which he plopped onto his desk. I recognized it instantly.
Lionheart: The R. Lloyd Douglas Story by Grant Austin.
Instinctively I reached to autograph it, then stopped myself. I settled back into my undersized chair.
Let him ask.
"Have you read it?"
Shepherd replied by picking up the book and thumbing through it. He took his time, pausing at every chapter.
He took so long my attention wandered to the display on the wall behind him. He'd hung his master's degree from Yale along with three framed news clippings —
Myles Shepherd Turns Down Yale Offer to Teach at Local High School
Myles Shepherd: California Teacher of the Year
PARADE MAGAZINE TRENDY TEACHER INSPIRES TEENS: MYLES SHEPHERD, ROLE MODEL EXTRAORDINAIRE
Something familiar caught my attention. Prominently displayed on top of a mustard yellow file cabinet was a tennis trophy — Most Valuable Player.
On the night of the award ceremony, Coach Walker confided in me that his decision to give the award to Myles had been a coin toss. Myles had edged me out. That's the way it had always been between us.
I couldn't help but wonder if the trophy normally resided atop the file cabinet or if Myles had placed it there in anticipation of my visit.
As I continued to look around, I sensed there was something odd about the room. At first I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I did.
Conspicuously absent was any kind of student homage to Shepherd. For an award-winning teacher, that struck me as odd. There were no pictures of Shepherd surrounded by laughing students. No nostalgic teacher plaques or knickknacks, the kind gift stores sell by the case at graduation time. In fact, there were no apple-for-the-teacher mementos of any kind.
"Your book is certainly getting you a lot of attention," Shepherd said, breaking into my thoughts. "The New York Times bestseller list, for what? Three weeks now?"
"Thirteen! Are you sure?"
"Thirteen. Trust me. An author knows. And you still haven't answered my question. Have you read it?"
Shepherd paused in his page thumbing. He silently read a sentence or two and grinned. "It's pedantic," he said, "but adequate for our purposes."
"Pedantic?" I blurted, louder than intended.
"Unimaginative, pedestrian, bookish —"
"I know what 'pedantic' means."
"Sorry. Teacher's habit."
But he wasn't sorry. He'd baited me and I'd bit.
Shepherd slapped shut the cover and tossed the book onto the desk, this time back cover up. I found myself staring at myself and wincing. I'm one of those guys who doesn't look as good as his publicity picture.
"What exactly about the book do you find pedantic?"
Shepherd smiled that smug, insufferable smile of his. "Jana looked good at the assembly this morning, don't you think?" he said.
The change of topic blindsided me. "Jana? Jana was here?"
"You didn't see her?" Shepherd sniffed. "Given your past involvement, I would have thought she'd get an exclusive interview."
"Last I heard she was in Chicago."
"KTSD. For about a year now."
Local station. That would explain it. "The White House staff handles all media arrangements," I said. "They give preference to the national networks."
"So much for old friends, huh?"
I ignored the cheap shot. My thoughts were on Jana. The last time I saw her was the day she walked out on me. I was a cad. She cried. The worse part was that she left me for Myles.
Shepherd slapped my book with the flat of his hand. "You know what amazes me about historians?" he said, changing the subject again. "The way they interpret events to suit their own purposes. Doesn't that strike you as dishonest?"
I didn't hear him. I was still wading in waters of regret, the romantic kind.
"Of course," Shepherd pressed, "you could make a case for the argument that all recorded history is essentially a collection of legends, half-truths, and lies."
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't get me wrong. I'm sure you did the best you could, given your limited access and understanding of the forces at work."
I'd had enough of this.
"Sour grapes, Myles?" I snapped. "It's beneath you. You know fully well that for a project of this scope I had to be granted complete access both to records and to people. My research was extensive. I've logged hundreds of hours interviewing the president, his family, his staff, and world leaders. My work is meticulously documented."
Shepherd chuckled. "Don't get defensive, old boy. I'm sure you dutifully read the documents that were set before you and recorded everything they wanted you to record. It's not your fault it's all a lie."
That did it. Even if he asked for my autograph, he wasn't going to get it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hideous Beauty"
Copyright © 2018 Jack Cavanaugh.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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