Into The Bright Wilderness

dawn Rethinking a little writing project I started awhile ago – the story of Penelope Hope, recently retired school teacher, exploring the unfamiliar territory of her new life – which she discovers is way more scary and crazy than dropping down a rabbit hole into Wonderland.

Here’s a sample:
I had been expelled. Me, Penelope Hope. Handed my walking papers. Asked to clean out my desk and my locker in the teacher’s lounge. Kicked to the curb after twenty years of introducing Dickens and Melville to unappreciative eighth graders at Nelson H. Bentley Middle School.
The only thing that could have improved my mood was to see Principal Parcher hanging by his manly-bits from a stadium goal post. I did a mental happy dance all the way out to the faculty parking lot.
I was officially retired.
This was the day I’d waited for, yearned for, fought for, bled for, cried frustrated tears for, played stupid little “team building” games for – and at the same time dreaded. I just hadn’t expected it to come so soon.
That first morning of my retirement my eyelids sprang open to pale dawn sifting through the blinds. I slapped at the alarm clock from force of habit. It hadn’t rung. I had deliberately not set it the night before. As of this morning I had nowhere to be at any particular time.
I pushed the blankets aside and elbowed myself into a seated position on the edge of the bed.
Now what?
That was the big, fat, existential question. I had thought I’d have at least five more years before confronting that question. Then came the shake-up in the district – and my monumental knockdown, drag-out battle with the execrable Dr Malcolm Parcher.
From the day he hung his Harvard diploma on the wall of the principal’s office at Nelson H. Bentley we had been at loggerheads. It was a mystery to me from day one why, with a Harvard diploma, he was a lowly middle school principal in Seattle, Washington. There had to be a story behind that, I thought, some scandal in the recesses of his past. Or perhaps the diploma had been a gag gift from a former girlfriend that he could not stand to part with because it reminded him of their fleeting and tawdry afternoons of passion at the Motel Six.
Not to put too fine a point on it, we did not get along. I could easily believe him capable of any of a number of atrocities, and he very pointedly considered me an over-the-hill set-in-her-ways liability to the school, and an incompetent, inflexible old bat. Meaning I didn’t kiss up to him.
Ultimately to prevent bloodshed the district offered me a handsome severance package and I was dropkicked to the exit. Parcher’s intent was no doubt to replace me the very next day with a twenty-something toting a fresh-off-the-assembly-line teaching certificate – a bimbo at the lowest end of the pay scale and wiggling a stunning ass.
Fine with me. I was ready for the next door to open. Wasn’t that the saying? One door closes, the next door opens?
I grabbed my robe, stepped into my fuzzy purple slippers, and scuffed down the hall to the bathroom for a shower. First day of the rest of your life.
The phone rang as I stepped over the rim of the tub. Who would be calling me at five-thirty in the morning? I had no choice but to let the voice mail pick it up. I’d put my name on the substitute rolls but surely they could not have an assignment for me so soon.
I hoped to have a few days to settle in before I went to part time work. Well, I could afford to turn down a few assignments. That was the beauty of being my own boss, right?
When I finally finished my leisurely shower I checked the voice mail. Nothing. Whoever they were, they hadn’t left a message. How rude, I thought. What if I had dashed out of the shower, spraying water everywhere, practically breaking a leg only to hear . . . nothing. Was this how it would be now, jumping at every ring?
I pulled on a pair of lounge-around-the-house jeans and my sweatshirt with a pink cat on the chest. I didn’t own a cat. The shirt had been an unclaimed item in the lost and found box at school. Usually those items were donated to a thrift shop at the end of the year but I had been grading papers late one night, had felt chilled, and grabbed the sweatshirt out of the box. Like a cat, it followed me home. I am not a clotheshorse. One thing is as good as another if it keeps me warm.
Which I suppose was yet another thing that had set me apart from my fellow teachers at Nelson H. Bentley Middle School. The idea of “professional attire” seemed so ridiculous in the world of the mind, the world of words. What possible difference to anyone else that the color of my skirt did not play well with the color of my sweater? I noticed Parcher’s scowls of course but brushed them off as the judgment of a small mind. It was so utterly silly. I had two masters degrees – what difference did it make that my socks didn’t match?
I would not miss the lock-stepped mentality that pervades the American public school system these days. Now at last I was free to wear any damned thing I chose, whenever I chose. After all, retired people are expected to be eccentric and I vowed to turn it into an art form.
And I would not miss despicable Doctor Parcher who had called me a ragamuffin. Surely an actionable comment. I should have sued him for harassment. Toward the end, he had taken to sitting in the back of my classroom writing notes in a nasty little black book as I conducted my lessons. After the last bell he would call me into his office and demand that I explain every lesson plan, every disciplinary decision, every stroke of the pen upon the white board, every inflection of my voice, or exposition. Yes, I could probably have sued him into oblivion. But what would have been the use? Head held high, I had made my exit.
I chewed this over for the hundredth time as I brewed my coffee and waited for the toast to toast. Parcher and those clones that work for him were welcome to their tiny pinched world. I would have to let it go and stop playing back the mental tapes of his every offense. There was no telling where my new life would lead me but I was ready to get on with it.
Did I have any jelly in the cabinet? Couldn’t remember. I’d been accustomed to grabbing a cup of coffee and breakfast sandwich on the way to work. Only on weekends did I go to the trouble of fixing myself something more substantial to eat at home. My culinary skills were right up there with my skills as an auto mechanic. I could open a package and operate the microwave oven.
Never mind. There was a jar of peanut butter and I knew for a fact that peanut butter had a shelf life longer than poured concrete. I pulled the toast from the toaster, located the jar of peanut butter behind an antique can of chickpeas, opened it and spread a knife-full onto the brown surface of the toast. The coffee beeped. Breakfast.
I longed for a newspaper to read with breakfast. I didn’t have a subscription since the only time I read a paper was in the teacher’s lounge at lunch after doing the crossword puzzle. I would either need to subscribe or develop a whole new routine.
I switched on the tiny television at the end of the kitchen counter. Two young women in red dresses and a man wearing a gray suit and blue tie smiled through a report of a drive-by shooting in the Rainier Valley. Gray suit then pointed and gestured the weather report. It would rain. No surprise there. All one had to do was look out the window to know that. What an utter waste of electricity. I turned off the set.
As I poured a second cup of coffee I pondered how I would fill the rest of my day. Head to the grocery store certainly. Also stop by the Social Security office. The district human relations officer told me I needed to get there as soon as possible because there was lag time to consider between submitting paperwork and approval. Surely I wanted my money starting a soon as possible, right? Since I’d be receiving a teacher’s pension I hadn’t realized I would have to deal with the Social Security system as well. The idea of Social Security made me feel ancient. But no doubt the HR woman knew what she was talking about. There was a process to be followed, hoops to jump through. It was ever thus when dealing with the government.
I wonder what they’ll think of my pink cat sweatshirt at the Social Security Office? I stacked my coffee cup on my empty toast plate and set them in the kitchen sink.
The phone rang again but this time I was able to grab it before it went to voice mail.
A flat, tinny voice began after my second hello. “This is a courtesy call from your health care insurer to remind you that it is time to schedule your annual flu shot.”

Courtesy? On what planet is it a courtesy to call someone at that hour about flu shots? Not to mention it was a bit creepy that an insurance company was keeping tract of when – or if- I get shots.
I hung up on the robotic voice that was repeating the message for the third time. Was this kind of a call common? I was rarely home during the week so I didn’t know if this sort of intrusion was something I was going to be subjected to on a regular basis. What other bodily issues would be brought to my attention by disembodied voices?
The microwave clock read seven. It was getting light outside the kitchen window. My first order of business considering the lack of food in the kitchen would be a trip to the store. From the junk drawer under the counter by the phone I pulled a pad and pen. Time to make a list of basic food items. Now that I was on a fixed income I supposed I’d have to start being more careful of the budget. In fact I probably should make a budget. Perhaps start clipping coupons. I shuddered. Only hours into my retirement and I was seeing into a future dominated by fifty cents off on packages of Twinkies. Twinkies? Did they even still make Twinkies? And what had prompted that thought?
I clutched the paper and pen, opened the fridge and scanned the contents. What did I need? Really need, not just want. The fridge was a nearly empty box. There was an assortment of condiments on the top shelf and a take-away box of dubious provenance, half a dozen eggs still within the safe range, a bottle of cranberry juice and a partial bottle of dry white wine in the door. Some butter. An unopened package of cheddar cheese. Not much to go on.
Elephant in the room: I would have to cook my meals at home now that I was on a budget. Well, as soon as I had time to work out a budget. Eating in a restaurant a few meals a day was a thing of the past.
“Oh shoot,” I muttered. I felt as if I’d been kidnapped by aliens. I could write an extensive examination of the precursors of Restoration drama but I didn’t know how to boil an egg. Seriously. I closed the refrigerator door.
Education was the answer. I would educate myself. It couldn’t be that hard. People do this sort of thing every day. Information was there for the taking. I thought of the food chart that Emily Foster, the Family Living teacher, had posted on the teacher’s lounge refrigerator. It showed the percentage of various sorts of food a person should eat every day to maintain optimum health – fruit, vegetables, meats, dairy, etc.
It would be a good start to stock my fridge and pantry with a range of the proper items. I liked chicken and salads. How hard could it be to learn to roast a chicken and toss a bowl of vegetables? I would scoot to Fred Meyer and pick up lettuce, tomatoes, apples, chicken thighs, mushrooms . . . what else? Already I had the start of a list. Baby steps. Yes, how hard could it be?

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