Leslie and the Powder is a novelette of eight chapters, posted serially three times a week by me, your befuddled host, Cheeseburger Brown.
I really have nothing editorial to say on this chilly Monday morning. It's just too early, and I'm just too sleepy. At this time of day the cat is more articulate than I am.
...Where's my coffee?
And now, we continue our tale:
Leslie stepped into the classroom. It smelled like disinfectant. A young but very severe woman sat behind a much-abused wooden desk, her hands folded on a blotter that only half-covered the gouged graffito MR. ROSS IS A GOAT-FUCKER. The teacher's nearly colourless hair was pulled into a bun so tight it seemed to stretch the edges of her pale, unpainted face. "I'm sorry I'm late," said Leslie. "Miss..."
"Groverston. Sit down, Mr. Carstairs. You'll understand if we have to rush -- class begins in twenty minutes."
"I'm sorry," he mumbled again, pulling up an orange plastic chair and sinking into it. He rubbed his throbbing temples ruefully.
Miss Groverston levelled a steely stare at Leslie, making him feel as if he were back in school himself. He squirmed in the uncomfortable chair. She said, "You are aware, I hope, that this is not the first incident involving Angus this term."
"Yes," agreed Leslie. "He's been going through a lot, lately. You know -- teenage stuff. But I have to tell you that Angus and I just spent the weekend together and we had some very good chats. He's made some breakthroughs and I think you're going to notice a big improvement in him."
Miss Groverston smiled without humour. "Indeed. While that remains to be seen we are still obliged to respond to the incidents that have already happened. That is why you are here today."
"Are you aware, Mr. Carstairs, that Angus has amassed to date zero marks for homework completion?"
"That's not too good."
"No, Mr. Carstairs, it is not. In fact, that alone is enough to jeopardize his year. When I questioned Angus about his performance he told me what did or did not happen in his own home was not my affair."
"I directed him to discuss the matter with our vice-principal, Mr. Watson, but Mr. Watson tells me that Angus did not make his appointment on Friday afternoon."
"Oh," said Leslie, "well, actually, he had to leave early because we were driving out to my uncle's house. You see, he recently passed away and --"
"Indeed, Angus did tell me he quote-unquote could not stay, and I informed him that his school commitments must come first lest he risk fouling his academic career."
Leslie frowned. "You told a teenager he was fouling his academic career by seeing to his family commitments? What kind of response did you expect to that?"
"His comments were disrespectful."
"That's what I'd expect."
She pursed her lips in another humourless smirk. "I can see that you too are having difficulty appreciating the severity of your son's situation, Mr. Carstairs."
Leslie shook his head and wiped his bandaged hand down his face. "You're asking a kid to choose between getting in trouble at school or getting in trouble at home, and you expect him to smile and toe the line? With all due respect, Miss Groverston, that's ridiculous."
Her icy eyes flashed. "The other students do not seem to be sharing Angus' difficulty in maintaining an appropriate level of respect."
"Well, like I said, Angus has been doing a lot of thinking. I don't think you'll have this kind of a problem with him in the future. Really. He's changed."
"Be that as it may, we still have to deal with this incident."
Leslie was becoming impatient. "We're running in circles here. What is it exactly you propose, Miss Groverston?" he snapped.
"At this juncture I am recommending expulsion," she replied coolly.
She nodded primly. "I frankly see no alternative."
"If you don't see any alternative, what exactly are we supposed to be discussing?"
"I am obliged by board policy to solicit your feedback."
"You want feedback?" Leslie stood up from his chair and paced a quick loop in front of the desk. "Here's my feedback: you've got a bright, sociable kid who's been having some problems lately; a concerned parent comes in and tells you the kid has just turned a major corner in his maturity, and that things will be different from now on; and the best you can up with -- at this juncture -- is to kick him out of school?"
Miss Groverston said nothing, her lizard eyes locked on Leslie's face expectantly.
"Go to hell, lady," he concluded lamely. "That's my feedback. If this is the level of understanding you bring to bear on my son's education I'd just as soon he go somewhere else than suffer under your thumb."
She raised one eyebrow. "Many institutions will not accept students who have been expelled. You may have to consider private school." She stood up abruptly, her shoes clicking on the linoleum. "I wish you the best of luck in this matter, Mr. Carstairs. Now I would thank you to leave."
"I'll leave when I'm done saying my piece."
"Do not force me to call the police, Mr. Carstairs."
"The police?" he echoed incredulously. "You drag me down here so you can preen over your decision to kick my son out of school, and now you're threatening to call the cops when I have something to say about it?"
"This conference is over, Mr. Carstairs."
"Lady, you've got to be the worst teacher in all of Nova Scotia."
"This is your final warning, Mr. Carstairs," she said crispy, her hand hovering over the ancient, flesh-coloured telephone on the corner of her desk.
Leslie reached down and picked up his briefcase, then unzipped the top and pulled out the sugar jar. He slammed it on the desk, making the officious marm jump. "Know what this is?" he asked softly.
She shook her head, frowning. "Mr. Carstairs --"
"It's sugar and spice," he told her, opening the lid and hefting the jar from one hand to the other. "And everything nice."
He launched the entire quantity of powder directly at her face -- everything he had extracted from the limp little animal the night before. Miss Groverston threw up her arms in alarm and fell backward off her chair with a plaintive yelp. Leslie stood at the edge of the desk, watching her turn over and brush the sparkling residue from her face. "I'm calling the police," she said through clenched teeth. "You're some kind of maniac."
Leslie said nothing. He simply latched the jar closed and replaced it inside his briefcase, zipping the top with a flourish.
Miss Groverston watched him carefully like a cornered animal as she picked herself up and started reaching for the handset. "I'm warning you..." she said, flinching every time he shifted his weight.
Leslie cleared his throat.
Her hand hesitated, barely brushing the receiver. She took a step back and touched her forehead, blinking.
"Miss Groverston," said Leslie liltingly, "are you feeling quite alright?"
She smiled uncertainly. "Yes..." she said after a moment. She let her hand fall from her forehead, lightly skimming her cheek and neck and finally settling on her sweater between her breasts. "Yes, I'm feeling...very good," she admitted.
Leslie swallowed and then moved forward impulsively. "Why don't you let me take you out for a coffee? We can talk things over, see if we can't reach an understanding about this whole situation."
She licked her lips. "Why did you...throw sugar at me?"
"I'm sorry, I lost my temper."
"Yes...yes I can understand that. I suppose I have taken rather a hard line with your boy, haven't I?"
"A bit, perhaps."
Miss Groverston smiled warmly, her blue eyes vivid. "I really should apologize. It can be so stressful sometimes, dealing with each student's unique situation. I suppose it can be easy to lose perspective."
"Naturally. It isn't an easy job."
"I'm so glad you can appreciate that, Mr. Carstairs."
"Please, call me Leslie."
She giggled. "Leslie's a nice name."
"Thank you. About that coffee...?"
"I have a class to teach."
"Of course. Don't let me take up any more of your time. Thank you, Miss Groverston."
"Karen," echoed Leslie, grinning. "That's a nice piece," he added, pointing to the polished and immaculate surface of the exquisite wooden finish on her desk. Whether or not Mr. Ross was a goat-fucker was now a mystery left for the ages. "We'll talk again," Leslie promised, heading for the door.
"Wait," called Karen Groverston, holding up a hand. "Let me just arrange for a supply. It won't take a minute. I'll say I'm sick."
"Great," said Leslie.
While Karen bent over her handset Leslie fumbled out his own telephone and called the office, telling them he would be getting back to the city a day later than anticipated. "Death in the family, lots of stuff to take care of, you know how it is," he said to the human resources manager, telling her how it was. "Tell everybody I'll see them bright and early tomorrow, mkay?"
Karen glanced at the clock. "Ready?"
Leslie drove the Taurus fast, barrelling into the parking lot of the nearest Tim Horton's. Karen laughed. "You're a bit wild," she told him not unkindly.
"Sometimes life calls for a little bit of wild," he opined. He got out of the car and walked around to open the passenger door for her, his eyes lingering over just a hint of nicely shaped leg showing at the bottom of Karen's long skirt and she stood up. "Wouldn't you agree? A little bit of wild makes you feel alive."
"I do feel alive," she agreed, taking his arm. "I've never done anything like this before."
"What? Cut work?"
She blushed. "Never."
"Does it feel good?"
She grinned. "Yes, it really, really does."
"I knew there was a woman inside there, yearning to bust out."
"I'm a very contained person."
They walked right past Tim Horton's and Leslie steered them into the pub next door. Karen didn't object. They found a cozy booth near the back and ordered a couple of glasses of wine. "I'm not normally much of a drinker," Karen told him earnestly, "especially during the day."
"It's okay to let loose sometimes. It's good for the soul."
She nodded and then reached up to her bun and let her blonde hair fall around her shoulders, shaking her head to fan it out. Leslie's breath hitched in his throat upon recognizing just how ravishing she truly was. "That's better," she said.
She sipped her wine. "I never wear my hair down. I don't know why."
"Because it frightens you to be perceived as a sensual creature," replied Leslie lightly, watching her.
She met his eyes, nodding slowly. "That's...probably true. How did you get inside my head, Leslie?"
"Just chemistry, I guess."
"Can I ask what you do for a living?"
"Sure. I do nothing at all. I go to meetings and play Solitaire in my office."
"Is that rewarding?"
"No. But I'm thinking of quitting. Is it rewarding to teach?"
She shrugged. "If you had asked me that yesterday I'd have said yes."
"I think I just like to be in control. Like my father. He's a pastor. He works his congregation like a puppeteer, extorting them to fear to make himself feel important."
"Is that how you see yourself?"
"Maybe," she admitted. "I can't believe I did this. It's highly inappropriate for me to socialize with a parent. Frankly, it feels inappropriate to socialize at all."
"You're a solitary person."
"I am," she said, nodding. "I'm very focused on my career." She paused, looking into the space over Leslie's head. "Perhaps for the wrong reasons." She blinked and smiled nervously. "I don't even know why I'm telling you this."
"Because it feels good to let it out."
"You're right again. You're an insightful man, Leslie."
He snorted. "I'm a moron. But I'm a good listener."
"Why do you carry sugar in your briefcase?"
"It's a long story."
"I feel very at ease with you."
"It sounds like you've been ill at ease for a long time, Karen."
They ordered another round of drinks. Karen unbuttoned the top of her sweater, exposing a creamy white breastbone bridged by the grey strap of a heavy brassiere, crossed by a golden crucifix. "This should make it a little easier to breathe."
Leslie nodded. "It's stuffy in here."
"Can I confess something to you?" she asked, chin resting in her palm carelessly as she twirled the end of her hair with the other hand.
Karen looked down at the table, chewed the inside of her cheek. "I've spent my whole life fighting against my...feelings. I've spent my whole life making everything fit into a little box, being more serious than anyone else, keeping my nose to the grindstone, suppressing my appetites. I always felt so wrong for even having those appetites."
"To be close."
She blushed and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Leslie, I'm a virgin. Can you believe that? Twenty-six years old and I'm still a virgin. I preferred to be a virgin rather than...give in."
"Finding balance is hard," said Leslie philosophically.
She took another sip of her wine, licked her lips again. "I feel like telling the truth today."
"So tell me the truth, Karen."
"I feel a connection with you."
"What kind of a connection?"
She looked away. "I feel stupid. Maybe I'm drunk. I never drink."
"Don't feel stupid. Tell me what you're thinking, Karen."
"I want to touch you."
"To touch me?"
She sighed, and grasped his hands across the table. He could feel her heart beating through her moist palms. "I don't want to be locked up inside myself anymore, Leslie. I want you to help me. I want you to want me."
Leslie blinked, then waved his arm in the air and called out, "Cheque please!"
Her apartment was small and neat, like a display at Ikea. With regard to decor she favoured a cat motif. Her bed was edged in frill and lace like a grandmother's, a looming portrait of a nailed up Christ haunting the space over the headboard. Leslie tried not to look at it as he thrust himself against Karen's lithe pelvis, a sheen of sweat glistening on his brow.
She didn't climax, but she came close. Leslie apologized.
"Are you okay?" he asked, panting.
"I don't think you bled much. Do you hurt?"
"No. It doesn't really hurt. I've...been touched there before. I bled then." She sat up in bed, pulling the frilly comforter up to her neck. "I guess that makes me a fake virgin, doesn't it?"
"Not if you haven't made love before."
"He used his fingers," she whispered, then added, "My father, that is."
Leslie gulped. "Your father the pastor?"
"He's a good man, really," she said, looking out the window. "But he was sometimes tempted, and he wasn't always strong."
"Jesus Christ, Karen. I'm so sorry."
She held her arms across her chest, hugging the comforter to her. Leslie frowned and touched her forearm gently, tracing the edges of a series of fine scars arrayed in ridged, purple sets over her skin. She brushed his hand away. "I don't do that anymore," she told him.
"Don't do what?"
"Cut myself. I found other ways to feel proper."
Leslie moved across the bed carefully and put his arms around her. She hesitated, then let her head droop on his shoulder. "You don't need to feel that way anymore," he said softly into her ear. Karen cried. Leslie held her tight while the sobs wracked her frame. His heart ached. "You're free now," he told her.
She fell asleep. Leslie slipped out from her embrace and went to the kitchen. He picked his pants up from the floor and found the DuMauriers. He couldn't find his matches so he lit it off the stove, the gas igniter clicking.
It only took him a haul or two to decide the cigarette made him feel worse, not better. He stabbed it out, crumpled the box, and tossed the whole pile into the trash. A man of his luck and power didn't need that kind of crutch.
He had transformed a marm into a vixen by introducing the powder that undid the bonds her father had tied around her soul decades ago. He could see the good in it, unrepentant carnality aside. He figured he was finally getting a grasp on how the powder operated.
As its agent he was a dispenser of justice. He made things better, for himself and for others.
Leslie decided his inheritance was truly a blessing.