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“For Esme, With Love and Squalor”

J.D. Salinger

Brayden slammed his head against the desk hard enough that his eyes actually rolled back in his head for a second, or maybe two, before he pulled his head up off of it and started downward again. His helmet, covering his blond hair and his slightly misshapen ears, provided some protection. Miss Clara provided the rest. She put her hand on his forehead and did her best to keep it from hitting the desk again. Clara was 77; she slowed the blow but couldn’t stop it completely. She grabbed the pillow beneath his desk and set it on top of it before the third thump. Finally, she took him into a full body hug to keep him from hurting himself. He screamed.

“I found it!” came a voice from behind a computer on the other side of the room. “I have the research to prove it. Mozart is what they need. I can send you the link, Arlene.”

Arlene, an overweight woman in her 60s, made something of a snorting sound. “I’ll send you a link proving the Earth is flat, Ms. Pennywinkle.”

“If you can’t accept perfectly good evidence -” Ms. Pennywinkle began before Brayden screamed again. She looked over to him and Clara. “Can’t you hold him properly? My God, you’ve only been doing this forever.”

Clara held him tighter. “Doin’ my best, Ms. Pennywinkle. I promise you I’m doing my best. Brayden just -”

“I know all about Brayden, thank you. That’s probably why I’m in charge, and you’re an aide.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said, as Brayden began to calm himself. “I’m sure you’re right.” She wiped the drool off of Brayden’s mouth, and he bit her, not quite hard enough to break the skin.

“Fuck!” she shouted.

“Language!” shouted Arlene.

Clara put her hand to her mouth and sucked on it while she inspected it for holes. “There’s not a kid in this room who understands what I just said.”

“The principal sure as shit would,” said Ms. Pennywinkle. “We need to watch our language.”

“I’ll bear that in mind.” Clara looked up at the clock. It was 2:45. Just 8 more minutes until the bell. She might avoid being late if the bus ran on time.


Clara got off the bus and walked across the street, the Atlantic Ocean splashing behind her. She used to look out at the ocean on the way into Mike’s Clam Shack, but now she was too tired.

“You’re late!” came a voice sailing across the restaurant before she had even stepped inside.

“Sorry, Pat. I’m doing my best.”

“Car break down again?”

She shook her head and put on her apron. “Repossessed.”


Clara ignored him, and she went out to the patio. The diners at her table were new. They were clearly tourists. They were overdressed for the place. The woman, not more than 30, and her companion, probably her husband, who was already losing his hair, were looking toward the ocean. She overheard their conversation as she moved toward them.

Ask her,” said the woman.

“She’s only a waitress,” her companion replied.

“No, I’m not,” said Clara arriving at the table. “What can I do for you?”

“Ask her!” the woman demanded.

The man sighed. “Fine. That carcass on the beach.” He pointed across the street. “What happened?”

She looked at the skiff to which the carcass was tied. There were only bones left of what had once clearly been a powerful marlin. “Shark, I’m sure,” she replied. “What can I get ya?” They indicated they weren’t quite ready to order yet, and she told them to take their time, and she walked back toward the kitchen.

In an undertone that had no difficulty in reaching Clara, the man said, “I don’t know what that thing is, but it’s sure as hell not a shark. You don’t ask a waitress questions about marine life. I mean, how smart can she be?”


It was after 11 when she walked into her house. The smell of unchanged cat litter greeted her instantly. She flipped on the light switch in the kitchen. The dishes were everywhere. She sighed. She really would clean the house someday. Maybe next week.

She went into the bedroom where Horace, the cat, lay waiting for her on the bed. Her Windows XP laptop was on the bedside table, and she scooted Horace over and sat down. She opened the laptop, turned it on, and waited for it to start up. She knew there was no point in doing lesson plans for tomorrow. But she had done them every night of her 35 year career as a teacher, and they gave her the feeling of having some control. She knew Ms. Pennywinkle wouldn’t even look at them; they were, as Ms. Pennywinkle had told her over and over, not the job of the paraprofessionals. They were the job of the teacher, and now that Clara was retired, no one wanted to see what she thought they should do. She did them, anyway, in the same way she prayed every night, long after she had quit believing anyone was listening.

She got a cup of tea while she waited for her computer to warm up. There was only one clean cup left in the cupboard, and there were two bags left in the box.

When she returned, she set her tea on the table, spent 20 minutes writing out her lesson plans, and then she stroked Horace, undressed, put on her nightgown, and went to the dresser on the wall across from the bed. She retrieved the Makarov PM military pistol her deceased husband, Seymour, had brought back from Vietnam. She found the bullet rolling around next to it, and she inserted it into the gun. She set it on the night stand. She shut off the light.