Lunch Break
A Short Story by Lukas Sherman
Written using the suggestion "Unknown"
Originally featured on 09-07-2007
As part of our series "Alternative Universals"

The bell rang and Ward Hawthorne said, “O.K. kids, have a good day. Don’t forget to practice those instruments. Remember, band nerds are cool.” A few students mumbled goodbyes as they walked out. Ward was subbing for band, even though he was certified to teach social studies and language arts. He hadn’t played an instrument since his acoustic guitar was stolen in college. Not that it mattered, as they watched an inspiring movie about sled dog racing. Ward had seen the first 50 minutes 4 times and learned from a wise old Eskimo that he had to “make friends with the darkness.”

Ward looked at the clock. He got the call to sub at six in the morning and didn’t have time to buy a lunch, so he decided to go to the nearby strip mall. He put on his denim jacket and walked there, despite the light mist. His mom had given him a Starbucks gift card for Valentine’s Day (his only valentine), so he went there, putting aside his usual anti-Starbucks principles. It was across the street from the apartments where his brother and sister-in-law used to live. Ward always found returning to West Linn schools to teach very nostalgic. He had grown up and gone to school in the blandly affluent suburb and anytime he came back, there was always some reminder, not always pleasant, of earlier times.

The first thing he noticed as he walked into the Starbucks was the Bob Dylan song playing. It wasn’t so much the coffee he objected to at Starbucks as the often surreal collision of artistic sensibilities. While standing in line, he could buy a NYT or a Bob Dylan CD or a book by a former child soldier or a CD by a once resolutely indie Portland band. Aside from the newspapers, everything else felt out of context, like an art exhibit put together with no respect for continuity or place. Ward felt out of place, as he usually tried to patron Portland’s legion of independent coffee shops. But this was West Linn after all and independent was just a clothing brand for teens.

“Hi. How’s your day going?” said the overly cheery blonde.

“Oh, I’m great. Thanks. How are you?” he replied, forcing politeness.

“Just super. What are you up to today?”

Ward pointed at his nametag. “I’m subbing just down the street. Can I get a large Americano?”

“Sure thing. Room for cream?”

“Nope. Thanks.” He handed her his card. She swiped it and he dropped some loose change into the plastic tip jar.

As he waited, perusing CDs by Marvin Gaye and some band endorsed by Counting Crows (what year is this?), he noticed a woman and her child walk in. She looked vaguely familiar. There was always someone who looked familiar when he came here.

The woman looked to be about his age. Her hair was cut short and she was in mom out-for-an-errand gear; running shoes, Gap sweatpants, zip-up hoodie, baseball cap. Her son was picking his nose and clutching a Pooh Bear. It must be somebody from high school, he thought, or church. She caught him looking at her and smiled. He smiled back.

“I think I know you, don’t I?” she asked in a hoarse voice.

“I’m not sure. Ward Hawthorne.”

“Oh my God! Ward! Of course. Julie Carpenter. We were in AP English together. We did that Melville project with the stuffed whale. Wow.”

Ward nodded. “Yeah, right. It took me forever to make those little harpoons.”

“You look great. So what are you up to?”

Ward always hated telling people what he was up to, but he was always a bad liar. “Well, I’m subbing right now. Looking for a full time job. I’m over at the middle school today. For band.”

“Great. Teacher? Just like your parents! Your dad was one of my favorite teachers. I’ll never forget the time he dressed up as Mendel to do a lesson on genetics. How are they?”

Ward smiled uncomfortably. “Well, my dad actually passed away a few years ago. Cancer. So…” He trailed off.

Julie put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“It’s O.K.” He picked up his Americano from the counter and took a tentative sip. “I should probably get back.”

“Well, it was great to see you. This is Mark, my son.” Mark was sucking vigorously on Pooh’s ear.

“That’s great. I used to have a Pooh too. Well, nice running into you. We’ll always have the white whale.”

She laughed. “Bye Ward. Take care.”

“Right. You too.” He waved and walked out. It was raining now, but he didn’t mind. As he walked back to the middle school, a few random memories of Julie Carpenter floated by, the most potent being the time they almost kissed at her house while working on that project. And now married. With a kid. Ward shook his head at his failure to mentally reconcile these two things.

Back in the classroom, he turned on some music and cued the movie. It was time to befriend the darkness again.

Read More By Lukas Sherman

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