Rat-a-tat by Maggie Walcott
“This is the best that you’re going to be able to do.” The counselor had used a variation of that refrain quite a lot over the years. Not those exact words, of course, for where was the fun in that? But the general sentiment was always there nonetheless, a dark specter lightly cushioned with gentler observances like, “You’re an incredibly talented student, but” or sometimes sandwiched between “Right now the market is saturated with students” and “if you approach it in the right way, this is a great opportunity.” Just like a bit of slightly spoiled turkey, he knew that the trick was using enough dressing that the rancid sweetness hidden underneath became undetectable.
It might be different if he enjoyed the teenagers that rotated endlessly through the ragged cloth chair in his small office, but in truth, he despised them. Five days a week, thirty-six weeks a year, and countless hours spent holed up in a 10’ by 6’ space with their identical upturned countenances. He never failed to be repulsed by the combination of ignorance and conviction which oozed from their young bodies at every session. The only joy he received from their enthusiasm was in finding new and interesting ways of stamping it out.
His fingers drummed the desk slowly as he waited for the next student to arrive, not a fast rat-a-tat as so many others do – but methodical. Each finger on the desk marking a past success in his mind. His special cases. The student with a natural raw talent for mixed media art who he had painstakingly convinced was not good enough to apply to art schools. Rat. The athlete with a full ride basketball scholarship to a District II school, now a private in the US Army. A. And of course, his best pieces of work to date, and one that had taken him a full three years to bring about: The clever transfer student, so full of promise but lacking confidence, who had taken her own life. Tat.
Three years on a case is a long time, but the counselor believed strongly in being slow and methodical. The tortoise and the hare fable had hit him hard as a youth, and he planned his special cases like he drummed his fingers. Take your time. You have lots of it. Make small, but steady movements forward.
He was lost a bit in memory of that last case when the door of his office opened and his next appointment entered. It was Jack again. Dammit. He quickly looked down at his schedule to verify that Jack hadn’t been scheduled for today. Nothing there. Internally fuming, he pasted on his best blandly genial guidance counselor face and stood to greet the young man.
“Jack! What a surprise. I didn’t have you on my schedule for today. I have about five minutes until my next appointment, is there something I can assist with?”
The counselor’s voice was calm, soothing and deep. He practiced it at home in front of the mirror, often in conjunction with the same face he had just used on Jack. Jack was a freshman, tall, but gangly slim. Having not yet experienced the hormonal growth spurt that would widen his shoulders to match his already considerable height, Jack reminded the counselor of a wet spaghetti noodle. This impression was further compounded by the way that Jack inevitably flopped around nervously whenever he dropped in, which was frequently.
In fact, these visits had ramped up to such a degree as of late that the counselor had privately dubbed him “the Jack-in-the-box.” It was a moniker that had more to do with Jack’s unnerving ability to spring in when he was least expected than his actual name.
Jack dangled his gangly limbs into the worn student chair, finding purchase in the cracked seams, as the counselor gently closed the door behind him. “It’s the compulsion again, Mr. Pourri. I felt it coming on, so I ditched my photography class and got my ass over here ASAP.” The last word came out “a-sap”—and the counselor felt his eye twitch as he considered that, even in speech, Jack was too hurried to properly spell out the acronym.
Jack reached for the zipper on his jeans and began ratcheting the pull tab down the chain of metal teeth before the counselor could had even turned back around. “Jack, stop right there. I appreciate that you feel comfortable enough to come to me when you feel this compulsion, but we’ve discussed this. You cannot remove clothing in front of me. It’s inappropriate. We can discuss your symptoms, but you have to stay fully clothed.” The words were hissed quietly, but surely from the counselor’s mouth.
Last year, when Jack first began coming around, the counselor had diagnosed him with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It wasn’t that Jack had an actual compulsion to get naked, like some psychotics. With Jack it was a stress response. When Jack felt a panic attack or anxiety attack coming on, he described that the feel of clothing against his skin became unbearable. Jack could not think. He could not talk. He could only feel that clothing until it was removed.
Jack’s fingers paused in mid-air for a fraction of a second before resuming their work. “Sorry, Mr. Pourri, really I am. Just…give me a moment, please?” And that was that. Ten seconds later the jeans were taking up space on the floor of the cramped room, while Jack sat pants-less in the metal chair. As it usually did, Jack’s upper body collapsed the rest of the way forward, as he hung his head between his knees and took deep breaths. Small sobs wracked his gangly form.
The counselor hated this part. Naked bodies, male or female, held only horror for him. Furthermore, Jack was not one of his special cases and the prospect of providing genuine comfort to a student with no plan in sight was distasteful, to say the least. On the other hand he knew that calling for assistance with this would only lead to questions. No, the best thing to do was to get Jack up and out of there as quickly as possible.
Secure in the knowledge that he was relatively protected in the confines of the closed room, the counselor took a moment to gather up Jack’s pants. He slowly folded the worn denim in three, before kneeling in front of the boy to whisper. “Jack. Please put these back on now. This is not appropriate for either you, or me. We can talk about your anxiety, but first you have to put the pants back on.” This was always how it went. The counselor knew that eventually, Jack would calm down, recover his bearings and leave. Jack never thought about the repercussions of his actions, consumed as he was by the compulsion, nor did he seem particularly inclined to discuss his feelings once he was re-clothed. That was fine by the counselor – he just wanted Jack gone before the next student showed up.
True to form, after a few more seconds Jack’s head began to lift up and he could once again look the counselor in the eye. “Thanks, Mr. Pourri. I’m sorry to keep doing this. I don’t know where else I can go when this happens.” Jack rubbed the right side of his face with his forearm, wiping away the moisture there, before grabbing the pants from the counselor’s crouched form.
“Jack, we need to have a conversation on alternative coping mechanisms. I want you to feel comfortable with me, but this puts me in a dangerous position. You cannot come here anymore if this is what happens every time.”
“I know, Mr. Pourri. I know. I just don’t know what else to do.” Jack paused for a moment and his eyes grazed the walls of the office, as though looking for absolution on the messy book shelves before continuing. “I think I’ve got it mostly knocked though. I really do. My parents started me on a new medication last week, so I think once I’m adjusted, it’ll be fine again. Like it was before.” The counselor stood up and turned bodily around to face the door, as Jack disentangled himself from the chair and stepped into the legs of the jeans.
After Jack had left, the counselor gave himself a five minute break to recover. His next appointment, the slight girl with a lisp, was already there waiting for him in the hall chair outside, but he had signaled to her with one hand to wait there. He gave himself exactly two minutes to consider whether his indifference to Jack had been a mistake. When the boy had first come to him, he was entirely too needy, an immediate disqualifier. The joy, after all, was in the breaking.
However, lately, the counselor had sensed something new in Jack. A slowly building crescendo, like the fingers which quickened in rhythm even now upon his office desk. It was entirely possible that Jack might have made a great special case, perhaps one of his best. His two minutes up, the counselor dismissed these thoughts, and prepared himself for the young girl who was waiting in the corridor outside his office. Now she, he thought, would surely be magnificent.
When the three hard knocks came at his door a week later, the counselor should have been more surprised. In truth, it wasn’t the knock which surprised him. He was certainly angry, as the police pulled his arms behind his back, tightening the metal cuffs onto his wrists like a vice—but more at the inconvenience, still believing that everything could easily be explained away. But then the whispered rumors began circling. Rumors about the unfortunate family which ultimately became news stories. Imagine a family that lost their teenage daughter to suicide, and then—a mere 12 months later, having their only remaining child, a fifteen your old son, confess a sexual relationship with his school counselor. Imagine their pain.
The jury certainly could. Of course the video helped in their decision making process. It didn’t show much, of course—how could it? The crime had never happened. But as it happens, Jack had done a bang up job of placing the camera lens just so. Artfully capturing the half a dozen visit where Jack had sat in the chair, pants-less from the waist down, the counselor’s head obscured as he kneeled in front of his student.
No, it was the planning that surprised the counselor. He hadn’t expected that from the kid. Not from gangly limbed, anxiety ridden Jack. Slowly and methodically, Jack had brought the hammer of his own justice down. And even the counselor could admit—the best Jack could do was actually, pretty good.
Deep in the wilds of Northern Michigan, Maggie Menezes Walcott lives with her family in a house they built themselves. She has a grossly unused degree in physical anthropology from Michigan State University and has returned from a 30 year hiatus to her first love—creative writing. Her pieces have since been published in Mothers Always Write, The Dunes Review, and Every Day Fiction, among others.
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