author bio

Jim Tomlinsonimage

The Persistence of Ice


February 4, 2008

Mr. Lisle Titsworth Sr.
Room 412, St. Francis Extended Care Facility
1135 Charles Blvd.
Louisville KY 40213

Dear Father,
       Shortly I will explain why you receive a letter from your loving son written in unfamiliar hand, this in lieu of my customary Saturday visit. Surely you noticed that I was not there this past week or the prior one. The reasons stem from a situation that has developed with a student in recent weeks, a situation which, in the beginning, I thought quite trivial. In light of your current state of health, I thought it best that I try to manage the situation without benefit of your wise counsel.
      I trust that some kind nurse or volunteer reads this letter to you. She must know that she has my most sincere appreciation. I remain confident that, given the kind ministrations of the St. Francis staff, your iron will and lion heart shall soon prevail against the forces besieging you.
      The six-month report from Doctor Watts arrived yesterday. In it he writes that your cognitive functions are almost completely restored. Alas, some motor skills may never return. Still, it seems that you are more fortunate than most who experience such strokes. I asked specifically, and he assures me that you retain the ability to read. Thus you may explore the world once more in the company of your beloved Dickens, Kipling, and Durant.
      He also reports that your malaise inexplicably remains. You only need summon your most formidable resources of will, Father, and throw off that dark shroud. I remain confident that you shall one day do just that.
      Now if you will indulge me, I shall relate the rather improbable circumstances to which I alluded above.
      You may recall that it was requested by the Burkitt County Board of Education that I conduct a basic civics course this school year, a mandatory one. Their aim was to inculcate the bare essentials of societal norms into those who are about to complete their education and spew forth into the world. I submitted a skeletal version of Lessons of History, the course I have taught, in one form or another, to students in St. Louis, Urbana, and Clear Lake over my twenty-two-year career. Quite naturally, it was approved.
      Is it possible that you ever encountered students of the ilk confronting me that first day? Perhaps, but it would truly amaze me. Such students I had seen in hallways, but my courses tend to attract few heathens such as these. Quite frankly, I had grown accustomed to classes filled with minds which, if not eager to learn, were at least resigned to the need to exert a modicum of effort in that direction. By slovenly posture, gross inattention, and jokes of the most objectionable kind, these students exhibit a total disregard not only for me but also for the material being presented. Of course, I was not totally unprepared, defenseless as I stood before this unwashed horde. You, having toiled yourself in the classroom for so many years, have taught me well. Rest assured that I employed every verbal trick you have taught me. Rapier wit, deft sarcasm, every means at my disposal was deployed to right this situation.
      One youth in particular, his name Drew Prewitt, a rotund young man who quite uncharacteristically moves with a dancer’s grace, seemed to command an inordinate proportion of the class’s attention.
      How many students have reveled in the muffled snickers of their classmates who address me by the name we share, you and I? Hundreds? At a minimum. Each fall, adolescents discover anew the humor in pronouncing “Titsworth” aloud in public. Young Mr. Prewitt took particular pleasure in this, addressing me by name to end his every sentence. With each question, his hand would shoot up, and when called upon, he would embark upon a rambling monologue having little or no bearing on the particular question posed. His protracted prattle served only as filler between untold repetitions of my name, with variably misapplied emphasis for heightened comedic effect. This penchant did not dwindle after a week or two, as is the norm. By mid-October, I was preparing to invite young Mr. Prewitt to a private conference at which I would spell out how I had handled similar situations in the past, in order that he might understand the full consequences should he persist in this sophomoric nonsense. Fortunately for him, his abuse of our name ended quite suddenly on its own.
      Unfortunately, young Puck did not cease his exaggerated level of class participation. To the contrary, if anything it increased. The others quite eagerly allowed him to bear all burdens of participation. While his answers now lacked the gratuitous use of my name, and while they took on what seemed to me a somewhat more learned tone, they still retained the meandering, dissociated quality typical of a non sequiter. This I found most disconcerting. Still, truth be told, several times young Mr. Prewitt happened upon reasonably defensible anarchist viewpoints in the course of his verbal ramblings.
      Except for an occasional offering by Miss Gee, a young lady cursed with a misproportioned body and a caterwauling voice, young Prewitt was, for all intents and purposes, the only student offering answers. I soon sensed that something else might be afoot, this conclusion based on sputtered laughter and muffled giggles from classmates whenever the lad spoke. I could not, try as I might, discern a correlation between the content of what he said and the class reactions. But I was determined to find him out. Perhaps, I thought, it is not his words but some small action. And so one day I brought my pocket tape recorder from home and secreted it in a book bag upon my desk. I called on him often but ignored his words, focusing instead on his movements. But no matter how closely I watched him—watched his hands, his eyes, how his large and slovenly body moved as he answered—I did not discern how the lad was managing to entertain my class right beneath my very nose.
      The answer surfaced that evening when I reviewed the tape made in class. First I heard the sound of footsteps shuffling in, followed by a minute more of clatter—Miss Gee, who sits front row center, kicking her shoes off and flipping them about with her feet—as I began the day’s lesson. I posed a question concerning checks and balances, then called upon young Prewitt. His response momentarily confused me. Strange to say, the lad spoke with your voice, only younger, sounding as you did in my youth. But surely, I thought, this is not possible. Still, without the visual distraction of his hefty physicality and kinetic energy, the voice was unmistakable. Then I responded on the tape, and I knew. It was not you whom the lad mimicked. It was I.
      Would you be relieved to know that, despite his provocation, I did not resort to the tactics that I previously employed in Clear Lake? Perhaps so.
      The next morning I waited with recorder and tape outside Principal Yates’s office. You may recall my telling you about Yates, a true toady to the school board. The man is a most unfortunate blending of soft disciplinarian and ineffectual administrator. Still, I thought it best to seek redress through proper channels this time.
      Suffice it to say, his response was most disappointing. As he listened to the tape, it seemed unequivocal. The lad mimicked me. Yet when I reached to shut the recorder off, he requested that I allow the tape to play through to the very end. As God is my witness, a smile broke across his face at one point, and he quickly turned toward the office window.
      That afternoon, the loudspeakers summoned Drew Prewitt to Principal Yates’s office. The following morning a handwritten note offered his apology for any embarrassment or chagrin that may have been occasioned by the prank. I went promptly to Yates’s office, where I voiced my outrage at the note’s mocking and sycophantic tone. Predictably, no further action was taken.
      Understandably, I had lost all confidence in the weak administrators of this school. I would no longer subject myself to this humiliation. It became of no consequence that the course outline prescribed a minimum of fifty percent classroom discussion. I would no longer provide the stage upon which Mr. Prewitt danced his merry jig. I would lecture for the full hour every day. Naturally, this required that I prepare new material each evening. But I know this material well, and the marginal effort proved to be quite inconsequential. Truth be told, I relished the prospect of reasserting control of my classroom.
      I do not contend that my lectures were invariably brilliant. I do not contend that all students learned. But I do contend that any subsequent failure to learn cannot be attributed to incomplete or ineffective presentation on my part. Many students chose to nap. Some chose to engage in unrelated activities. I maintained a laissez-faire policy toward them, provided they did not disturb those who showed even slight interest. By my count, listeners initially totaled perhaps ten of the thirty-three. Among them were Miss Gee and, surprisingly, young Mr. Prewitt. In fact, as Christmas break approached, my lectures began to attract a few more listeners. Pencils occasionally jotted in notebooks now, and I felt certain that they were at last responding to lecture points well made. I could sense their surging interest. In response, I increased the time spent each night on lectures for the basic class, often appropriating time from preparation for my college-bound students, as I sought more effective ways to present the material and augment my primary lecture points.
      Had I somehow happened upon the key to holding their flighty attentions? Perhaps so. Despite our rocky beginnings, I must confess that I felt more than slight gratification at this fortuitous turn of events.
      Reality dashed my small pedagogic victory shortly after the holidays. I must have harbored niggling suspicions throughout the seemingly miraculous renaissance. Looking back, I see that the evidence was there. Quiz scores did not improve. No one, save the annoying Miss Gee, approached me outside class with questions or requests for help. Perhaps most telling, though, were inexplicable outbursts of enthusiasm and clandestine celebrations, often at the most inconsequential points of my lecture. Something was amiss. Still, I dismissed the early signs, preferring the illusion that I was teaching and my students were learning.
      That illusion died one snowy January morning. A teary Miss Gee met me in the faculty parking lot. Between bosom-bobbing sobs, she screeched out her tale of woe. It seems that she had been taunted by several young men, over what it was not clear. I suggested that principal Yates was better equipped to handle such complaints. She understood, she sobbed. But there was something she wanted me to know. Check out the wall, she said. Back side, high on the right.
      This I must explain. There is an edifice beyond the playing fields here at Burkitt County High School, a cinder-block construction of peculiar shape. It serves no discernible function save this—it is layered with the most vile graffiti, or so I am told. I am unsure of the wall’s origin, but suffice it to say it is solely the students’ domain. By tradition, we faculty steer clear. For unfathomable reasons, our lax administration permits this affront to all civility to stand on school property.
      Second period was open on my schedule, so I bundled up in boots and gloves and trekked out to the wall. I averted my gaze from what is scribbled there, reading nothing as I circled round to the back side. There I focused my attention high up on the right.
      We all develop, through the years, certain mannerisms, certain ways of speaking, certain phrases that we favor in our normal speech. In this I am no different from you or others. Such propensities in phrasing are most natural. But apparently my basic civics students found something entertaining in my phraseology. Apparently, I say, because they had posted a tote board of sorts, not unlike that used for betting on sporting events. Perhaps a dozen students had penciled their names in as contestants. Each was assigned, or more likely had chosen, a specific phrase. Drew Prewitt, for example, had selected “perhaps so.” A long string of tick marks suggested that young Prewitt had chosen well.
      You were a teacher, Father, so I trust you understand. I had been duped once more, not by our college-bound elite but quite frankly by our dregs. All teachers know that frightening but wondrous, albeit rare, moment when they are surpassed by truly exceptional pupils. But these are not those students. I daresay none will surpass me at any point in life. Yet they treat me and my subject matter with gleeful disregard. Surely you understand my resultant rage.
      In hindsight, perhaps I was naive in thinking that the administration might now take decisive action. I supplied them evidence in the form of instant photographs that very day. I submitted my recommendations in writing at Wednesday’s board meeting. My demands were simple and quite justified: Level the wall, suspend Prewitt for the balance of the semester, and suspend each of the other participants for two weeks. In my verbal presentation, I stated quite clearly that I would abide no compromise. The time has come, I implored, to stop coddling these juveniles.
      The board retreated to a closed session, returning in scant minutes to render a decision that should not have surprised me. They opted for a weak compromise. Young Prewitt was suspended for five days. Five days! The others received but light detention. The wall would remain untouched.
      There is a certain justice awaiting these young men. This I know. At graduation, they will face the world outside. How quickly they will sink into a proletarian existence, condemned to live out their lives in mind-numbing mediocrity. I see a sad justice in their fate.
      But the wall is yet another matter. While students come and go and eventually, for good or ill, meet their just desserts, that wall is allowed to stand from year to year. It is never called to a just accounting. Until now, that is.
      In Clear Lake I foolishly utilized plastic pipe for my explosive, a choice based solely on price. You may recall my telling how the device split quite harmlessly, how it fizzled when discharged into the office of my nemesis there, sounding to all the world like one elongated fart. (You will excuse my vulgarity, Father. There is no more accurate description for that seemingly endless expelling of wretchedly sulfurous fumes.)
      I would not repeat that error.
      That very afternoon I purchased a short length of pipe—this time galvanized, three-quarter inch—and three boxes of stove matches. After snipping the match heads off with nail clippers, I packed them, with all due caution, into the pipe. Then I capped and sealed the ends.
      Their wall would soon fall
      At dusk, I pocketed my device, donned a wool parka, scarf, and gloves, and headed out into the snowy night. Little traffic was about. I am certain that I was unseen as I made my way in snow that had accumulated by then to perhaps ten inches. Walking, I could feel the pipe rub, heavy against my leg. I felt that glorious surge of righteous energy, and my pace quickened. I stumbled on an unseen step at the entrance to the playing fields. In the instant that I fell, hands out, face down in the snow, I wondered if my device might detonate, if it might disembowel me, or worse, where I fell.
      Needless to report, it did not.
      Snow had worked its way under my scarf. My slacks and parka were coated. I brushed myself off as best I could, my gloves themselves now snow-crusted. I checked my payload. It still nestled warm against me.
      The experience of falling suggested that I might more prudently transport the device pressed not so close to my body. So the remainder of the way, it rested in my gloved hand. Were I to fall, I would quickly toss it some distance away.
      But I did not fall again. I pushed my way through frigid wind and blowing snow, eventually arriving, quite exhausted, at the wall.
      The edifice looked larger than I remembered as I stood regarding it that snowy evening. I wondered if my device would bring the entire structure down or if it might only damage part. For a moment, I toyed with the idea of retreating to my apartment to construct a second, larger weapon. No, I decided. This one would do. Damaged or destroyed, either was preferable to what stood before me now.
      I selected the spot where the pipe should strike the wall—back side toward the right. I stepped off twenty paces, a distance that seemed quite safe, and yet one at which the device could be hurled against the wall with sufficient force to explode.
      You may recall that, following the dud at Clear Lake, you commented quite wittily that I would have been well served by more thorough studies in the physical sciences. Father, I fear your observation has held true yet again.
      You have, no doubt, heard tales of children whose tongues stuck to school-yard flagpoles. I do not know if these are true, but I can now assure you that they are based on sound principles of science. Just as a frigid pipe can freeze spittle and attach to tongues, so will a pipe, in cooling, melt snow on a glove and attach to it.
      When I threw the pipe, it traveled perhaps six feet, having extracted the glove from my throwing hand. Together, they burrowed into the snow.
      Had I considered my actions, I would have reacted differently. Have no doubt of that. But reflex is not subject to rational review. I lurched forward to retrieve the device, as if my errant toss somehow did not count.
      The pipe exploded in a brilliant, silent flash.
      I say silent, but no doubt it was not. Suffice it to say that I recall no sound, only that moment of white flame. Partial deafness lingers yet today, evidencing the fact that indeed the detonation must have been accompanied by a mighty sound.
      Lest you be overly concerned about my physical condition, Father, let me offer reassurance. Burns were limited to the exposed portions of my face. The nurse tells me that all traces of eyebrows are gone, imparting to me a visage of one perpetually surprised. My eyesight will, in all probability, be restored to a level that allows reading of large-print books. All major limbs are intact, and I am assured that most digits are salvageable.
      Three people have visited me here in my recuperation bed, the first being the kindly volunteer who transcribes this letter. The second, Principal Yates, arrived this morning with paperwork in hand—the board’s offer to provide a rather bland letter of recommendation, not unlike the one from Clear Lake, on the condition that I quietly resign. The only other visitor has been young Mr. Prewitt. Quite frankly, Father, I am at a loss, still, to fathom the lad.
      I shall visit you again, I assure you, as soon as I am up and about. Until then, I remain,

Your loving son,
Lisle A. Titsworth Jr.


Author Bio

Jim TomlinsonJim Tomlinson is the author of two short story collections:  Things Kept, Things Left Behind, which received the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award; and the 2009 release,  Nothing Like an Ocean, which contains the short story “The Persistence of Ice.”  A resident of Berea, Kentucky, Tomlinson’s work has been widely published, most recently in New Stories from the South:  The Year’s Best, 2008.