“Mrs. Cavanaugh”

Another workshop, another shorty, another Kate story.

I know, I know–get another protagonist, amirite? Maybe, but perhaps, dear reader, youarewrong. I write a lot of stories without Kate; I just finished one, actually, but I’d like to take a stab at shopping it and thus will hold off on posting it here. I have several more that just need editing and will get thrown up here… sooooon? And while I have a little collection of Kate stories, they’re not all the same Kate, exactly, but they also are all the same Kate… exactly. Kate alternately represents little facets of unresolved fear and injury and humiliation that take up endless space in my head; I won’t ever be entirely rid of her. The stories that feature her are just my way of making her contribute a little rent.

(Something I noticed literally just as I was composing this blog: in every Kate story I’ve written, there’s only one where she doesn’t have a guardian of some kind. She dies in that one. Hm.)

Annie was a fun character to write–I dive heavy into archetypes in all of my writing and studying, and I wanted to create a woman who embodied the transition from Mother to Crone, lifebringer to deathgiver. She was also an exploration of the feminine appropriation of traditionally masculine power: violence.

As always, thank you for reading.

“Mrs. Cavanaugh”

“I—I’m sorry,” Kate whispered. Her puffy eyes flittered up to his own and Mr. Bircher felt a whisper of pity for the mousy, disheveled girl cowering in his office. Invisible weights pulled her gaze back to the floor. “I did ask to be excused,” Kate supplied his silence, elbows pressed to her ribs, fists buried in the oversized pockets of her wooly grey cardigan.

“You are afforded ample time during the lunch period,” Mr. Bircher countered with a dismissive wave of his meaty, catcher-mitt palm.  

“I’m sorry,” Kate repeated.

Mr. Bircher sighed. His smoker’s nose long ago smothered his sense of both taste and smell, so he simply had to imagine the whiff of acridity which would no doubt emanate from the back of her damp skirt, her soaked panties. She’d cleaned herself up, anyway; he could see beads of water glinting on the brief interruption of her inner thigh: an inch of white, scrubbed pink, irritated and glowing between her socks and skirt. Mr. Bircher felt a stir in his groin which alerted his gaze back upward, but all he was looking at was the crown of the girl’s limp, brown hair. 

He swallowed before speaking, worming a finger between his stubbled red neck and the collar of his dress shirt, enjoying the throb of his own pulse. “Well, young lady, if you are not willing to cooperate with a routine investigation into the, ah, incident, we’re going to have to start talking about detention.” 

Her wounded-bird eyes flashed back to his, wide and fearful. Mr. Bircher felt himself gaining traction.

The acts of disorder which had landed decades of students in Mr. Bircher’s office were rarely inventive and, in his experience, varied little from one generation to the next. The stories which accompanied the acts, however—the dramas, the sobbing, the excuses, the ratting, the bribes, the bargaining, the alliances, the rivalries, the fears, secrets, lies, scandals—they symbolized to Mr. Bircher the hot, frenetic entropy of human nature, bubbling just beneath the crust of the social strata. Teenagers, he thought, embodied the inevitable descent of every interaction towards chaos, and Mr. Bircher was fascinated by the barely checked wildness of these unrefined beings, only a few degrees removed from animals themselves: running, shrieking, fucking, playing, spitting, cursing, pissing. Their primal essence, as he thought of it, both aroused and terrified him. They were the id, and he and his peers, the governing superego; still, he could not help but relish in their ruthless pursuits of desire-fulfillment.

However, the Cavanaugh girl wouldn’t cough up anything more than half-sentences and apologies. There were no places, names, details; he lacked his setting, his cast. The students’ acts of contrition—these office confessionals—allowed Mr. Bircher opportunities to safely indulge in their wild adolescent exoticism, like a man on safari. There was a darker need lurking below, of which Mr. Bircher was only peripherally aware; he longed to see the event reincarnated on the girl’s face, to drink in all her humiliation and fear. He especially liked the way the girls always crossed up their arms and legs as they tried not to cry, tight like little clamshells, dying to fold themselves out of existence. Just his awareness of her shameful display gave him some perverse joy, but Mr. Bircher’s stunted, bland imagination could conjure no scenario, no material whatsoever to accompany the deed, and thus he could not obtain the satisfaction this encounter should rightfully offer. It was like lighting a cigarette, yet inhaling only air.

Kate had returned to her love affair with the green carpet.

“Do you want to tell me what happened, then?” Mr. Bircher’s tongue caressed the dark bristle above his lip. He shifted his pelvis forward in his chair, relieving the press of his gut. “Did you… for example… throw your panties away? After you went to the restroom?”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to her feet.  

Mr. Bircher sniffed. “Detention, then.” 

—–

“Do you seek permission before you urinate?”

“Excuse me?” Mr. Bircher’s wide, pink face flushed red.

“Was my question unclear?”

“Well, no—”

“She’s sixteen,” Mrs. Cavanaugh cut him off, leaning into his stare across the gleaming mahogany slab between them. She inhaled dark wood panels, leatherbound books, old tobacco, his nervous sweat. She had made her name and profession traversing the boundaries of schools, offices, precincts, courthouses—all hollow pantheons of masculine authority which made up the framework of American society. It was a familiar setting; Mrs. Cavanaugh was in her element. “I myself have spent forty years on this earth, and I can’t recall a single scenario in which more than a perfunctory excusal was necessary for such business.”

“We have to keep the children from—”

“From peeing?” She lifted a neat, arched brow. “Yes, you’ve made your agenda quite clear.”

The air that escaped from Mr. Bircher’s mouth seemed less like a sigh and more like an emergency pressure release. She watched as he brought his two clubby index fingers to a steeple at the bridge of his nose, pinching the red skin white. He closed his eyes, as if from a headache.

“Mrs. Cavanaugh,” Mr. Bircher began again, “It would simply be anarchy, were we to—”

“Anarchy? Autonomous trips to the bathroom are considered a state of lawlessness? Again, Mr. Bircher, do you seek permission before you pee?”

His internal boiler let off another burst of steam. “No.”

“Should I, then, consider you an anarchist?” 

“You’re being rather unreasonable,” he said, but his voice had lost any semblance of authority. He pooched his lower lip like a petulant child. Beads of sweat huddled in the scrub of his mustache like soldiers in a jungle. “We are simply trying to prepare them for—for real life. Adult responsibilities.”

“She wishes to become an English professor. Is pissing yourself in front of students a prerequisite to that career path?”

“I think that’s quite enou—”

“Are you a Constitutionalist, Mr. Bircher?”

“A communist?”

“A Constitutionalist, Mr. Bircher. I would expect the high school principal to understand the difference.”

“I do not understand why you insist on—on speaking in political terms.” The chair squalled as Mr. Bircher shifted beneath her clear, direct gaze. He couldn’t recall seeing her blink, not once, since she charged self-righteously into his office ten minutes prior. Mrs. Cavanaugh’s hot green stare reminded Mr. Bircher distinctly of his own mother, and he shifted again, to the chair’s repeated protests. He was desperate to be rid of her. “However, I am willing to relent on the matter of detention—” 

“Constitutionalism is the idea, often associated with the political theories of John Locke and the founders of the American democratic republic, that government can and should be limited in its powers, and that any prescribed authority or legitimacy granted to the government depends on observing these limitations. I would think such an avid reader of Locke would hold closely to such ideals. Your actions suggest otherwise.”

“I’m afraid I’m not following you,” he said carefully.

“No, you clearly are not. I have a document here, Point Venuti Academy’s Rules and Regulations. It is the most current edition, 1965, updated just last year. Would you be kind enough, Mr. Bircher, to direct me to the section where authority figures are given the right to deny schoolchildren a reasonable opportunity to evacuate their bladders and bowels?”

Mr. Bircher’s eyes fixed on the white, trifold photocopy she brandished toward his chest; a sword raised en garde. He felt slow, drugged. He could not find a logical thread to pull on, could not untangle the rat’s nest of her reasoning. He had stubbed out a freshly lit cigarette upon her intrusion; he felt a maddening desire now to take the squashed thing out of the ashtray and put it back in his mouth.

Mr. Bircher realized she was waiting for him to say something, and likewise realized, with the poetic horror of a student called to the board without an answer to the question, that he had not been paying any attention to the words coming from her small, pert mouth. The clanking machinery of his brain latched onto the last phrase it recognized.

“Ah, John Locke?” Mr. Bircher’s beady eyes remained on Mrs. Cavanaugh’s outstretched pamphlet, paper gripped delicately between thumb and index, arm untrembling. Her hand was small, almost childlike. The fine bones and translucent skin looked papery, skeletal, hovering above the lamp-warmed glow of the wood.

Philosophical Works, Volume Two.

“I beg your pardon?”

Mrs. Cavanaugh gave him a feline smile, retracting her outstretched arm and depositing the pamphlet back into her leather folio in one swift movement.

She leaned in, green eyes like weapons. Though this woman’s slim, suited figure and prim, dark bob were the direct antithesis of the buxom, hulking, fearsome figure that had been Richard Bircher’s mother, Mrs. Cavanaugh’s gaze still struck him down to a child of three, of five, of fifteen.

Caught, those mother-eyes said. Caught.

“Mr. Bircher, are you intoxicated?”

He was, in fact, though he felt he had sobered up a good measure since this woman’s egregious barrage into his office. He’d barely even had time to get started, anyway; it was only half past four, and the majority of the staff and student body had dispersed only a half an hour or so prior. Mr. Bircher thought of the scene Mrs. Cavanaugh might have charged into, say, twenty minutes later, and felt a warm roil in his guts, both thrill and shame.

“Missus, uh, Cavanaugh,” he took a breath, grounding himself, and began shuffling papers at random around the expansive desk. “I am afraid I am no longer willing to indulge you on this matter. I have made a reasonable offer to rescind Kate’s detention, which should conclude any further discussion. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I, ah, have other business to attend to.”

The casters of Mr. Bircher’s chair wailed as he shifted his considerable bulk to open the bottom drawer of his desk. He began fingering through payroll files, both to avoid Mrs. Cavanaugh’s sharp, smiling face and also to suggest some air of dismissal. His peripheral vision caught her standing as if to leave, and the feeling that rushed through his innards this time was a sweet, amber relief.

But she paused, and Mr. Bircher looked up in exasperation to see her pale hand reaching for the oversized tome on his desk. “I must admit, I haven’t come across this particular edition before—”

Mrs. Cavanaugh was wholly unprepared for the banshee screech that emanated from Mr. Bircher as his eyes traced the destination of her outstretched hand. He shot up and out from his exhausted chair, sending the wheeled thing hurtling into the bookshelves and connecting his left knee with the corner of the open desk drawer. He made a desperate grab for the same book the woman was reaching her death-like hand toward.

It was a book he had misplaced the title of until just a moment ago: Philosophical Works, Volume Two, by John Locke.

He grasped for the book, and knocked it to the floor.  

—–

Annie stared at the oversized double doors of the school through the windshield of her immaculate Chrysler—a prized item whisked from the estate of the erstwhile Mr. Cavanaugh a mere five years before. She’d kept the name, too. Like the car, Annie appreciated the practicality and use of the thing; also, like the car, it was something her husband once held dear, which now belonged to her.

Katy—well, there had been no dispute there. Katydid had always been hers.

Annie smiled, eyes still set on the doors.

October air sauntered in through the cranked-down window, all salt and fir. Within its fresh bite was the first suggestion of the steely, damp months which constituted winter in northern California. The air was heavy, pregnant with cold mist, the sky sheeted grey.

“He gives me the heebie-jeebies,” Kate had sniffed from under her floral comforter the evening before, blanket pulled all the way up to her chin, like a child. Cici’s purr ran like a steady motor by the girl’s feet, seeming to sense her need for reassurance. Kate’s doe eyes were red, miserable.

Annie was up to her elbows in closing the Barrett estate, the October tax payments being just over a week away, and had reluctantly phoned Marvin to fetch Kate in the limo. He was a familiar enough face; professional, discrete. Not that it really mattered. If thirty kids see you wet yourself, people will talk.

“He sits in on almost all the detention periods. I’m not the only one, either. I’ve heard the other girls. He’s a big creep,” she finished with a shaky exhale.

Annie had wanted to run the girl down with questions, but her Katydid was a fragile personality, even under the best of circumstances, and she instead resolved to make her observations firsthand. 

Annie Cavanaugh was rarely surprised, but even she had not been expecting the panties.

Mr. Bircher had not imparted the impression of an avid reader. Like most of her breakthrough discoveries—gold mined while pouring through letters, leases, tax records, deeds, covenants, addenda—it was merely a nag, a sense of something off, a blip in the natural chains of cause and effect to which she was so intuitively attuned.

There had been scores of books paneling Mr. Bircher’s derisorily grandiose office, but each spine gleamed seamless and smooth, as if in a bookstore, with no indication of reference or wear.

There was a single dark cavity among the shelves behind his head, and there was a single hardcover selection on his desk: Philosophical Works, Volume Two.

Something about the book. Something off.

He had been intoxicated; Annie was quite certain. Although distasteful, she recognized there was little way to prove such an issue, and even less recourse or repercussion for such behavior, even on school grounds. He had relented on the ridiculous detention assignment, and that was good enough for now; she had clearly rattled the man, and that was even better.

When he attempted to excuse himself for the last time, Annie was resolved to let Mr. Bircher off the hook, but likewise considered that a discrete yet thorough review of his background and affairs might be in order. But like the tongue’s fixation on the void of a missing tooth, her mind kept returning the book on the desk, that whiff of something rotten.

So, Annie had poked at the subject one final time before leaving—poked quite literally—and the man had screamed, lunging for the volume, his face melting from panic to stupor as he knocked it to the floor. 

There had been many talismans squirreled away in Principal Bircher’s hollow book: a tortoiseshell hair comb; an oversized marble; a small pocketknife; several wallet-sized photos which fluttered to the carpet like snow. The one which landed face-up onto the carpet showed the round, beaming face of a girl of six or seven, framed by a simple brown bob much like her own. 

It was the panties, however, that shrieked at Annie from the floor. They puddled on the dark green carpet like a stain; a dingy, over-washed white, trimmed in scalloped pink elastic, fraying here and there. They were an innocuous and universal symbol in the Sacred Order of Little Girls, but in that dim, smoke-choked office they were a blasphemy, a perversion, an accusation.

Annie had been seven, going on eight. Mama had never brought home a boyfriend, and there had been no context in which to place the dripping, suffocative affections of this new man. The showers of toys, the lingering hugs. The casual brush of his hand up her leg, her ribs, his fingers squeezing the back of her neck. The requests to come sit on his lap, as if she were still a baby.

That first nocturnal visit—and there were far, far too many before Mama caught on—Annie had spent fixed on the spill of her own white panties, peeled from her warm, sleepy body and deposited casually in one of squares of ice-blue moonlight that painted her carpet from the frame of the window.

She could not, would not, look at him. He was panting, like a dog, as Annie silently wept, paralyzed, sick with confusion and a massive, unnamed shame that threatened to crush the foundation of every joy she had ever known.

Annie had buried her panties in the yard the next day, afraid her mother might find them in the trash. She did not want to look at them, could not bear the idea of putting them anywhere near that sore, sick ache he had left.

“Those are, uh… not mine,” had been the first words stammered from Mr. Bircher’s dumbfounded face.

“No, I do not believe they are your size,” Mrs. Cavanaugh murmured, only half-aware she’d made the remark.

Lost and found, Mr. Bircher had insisted from his hands and knees, clawing items from the floor with his meaty fists and shoving them back into their wooden compartment.

Mrs. Cavanaugh had left without bothering to challenge the statement.

—–

The first fat drops streaked her windshield as Mr. Bircher’s lumbering figure stumbled down the steps to the staff parking lot. His suit-jacket shoulders were hunched against his balding head, arms shot straight down his sides, fists balled to pistons. The violent, metallic bang of his car door was felt as much as heard, and his tires gave a yelp as Mr. Bircher’s brown coupe whipped from the deserted lot. His headlights were not on.

Annie watched his eastbound descent for a few moments before starting her ignition.

They drove for twenty minutes, thirty, stretching up the coastal frontage road for ten or so miles, then taking a small fork, veering inland, toward the redwoods. She could not imagine his residence was located at such a distance from the school, which made the question of his destination all the more pressing.

Trees and fog pushed in from both sides of the road, and her wipers sluiced a predictable rhythm which comforted her in the silence: squelch-thump, squelch-thump. There were no stars. It was getting close to dinner, and she thought Kate might be missing her.

Annie maintained a steady, careful distance from the weaving red lights ahead—Mr. Bircher had, a few miles into the drive, finally snapped on his beams. Still, Annie must have spooked him, her trail perhaps too obvious on the deserted two-lane, because she watched his car take on an unexpected burst of speed.

Annie faltered for only a moment before fixing her resolve. This was no longer mere suspicion, she reasoned; not some flit of feminine intuition. She stepped on the gas, leaning toward windshield, straining to see anything but the reflection of her own headlights against the press of fog. Condensation crawled up the edges of the wet glass. The veins of her slim hands bulged with the strain of her grip on the wheel.

She gained speed, emboldened by a perceived vindication for her earlier misgivings, longing for a taste of righteous justice. Annie’s car hauled itself over the crest of a hill, and she came upon the taillights of Mr. Bircher’s coupe so suddenly she nearly rammed into him; he had, apparently, slowed back down to accommodate the poor visibility. 

However, in tragically similar fashion to the book incident, Mr. Bircher managed to act as the catalyst of his own undoing: Annie slammed on her brakes, and Mr. Bircher, startled, slammed on the gas. His engine growled for only a few moments before being overtaken by a short, metallic scream. There was a pause, then a strangely muffled thump in the shrouded distance ahead.

Annie coasted down the hill and carefully pulled off; the two-lane pass was narrow, and without guard rails in several areas. She walked the rest of the way down the road, guided by the weak, diffused patch of light emanating from below the cliff’s edge. She thought of the small nightlight, shaped like a candle, that shone demurely from the floorboard of Kate’s bedroom.

The little car had managed to slip or turn and land tail-first into the ravine below. The dirt and trunks and bushes suspending the car were illuminated in pink, one taillight burning red, the other broken, spilling white. The windshield was facing her, but she could not see well behind the glass, the glare of the still-firing headlights pointed directly in her eyes.

As Annie’s face peered over the edge, the horn began stammering in clipped, weak bursts. 

Annie withdrew a few steps, pressing her palms to her eyes to try and dispel the stars she saw as a result of peering into Mr. Bircher’s headlights. Fog clung to her hair, her face, her freezing hands, its clammy grip working its way under her clothes. Her own headlights, forty or fifty feet down the road, joined Mr. Bircher’s in illuminating the soft swirl of moisture suspended in the air. Fog always looked denser three or four feet ahead of where you stood; it had vexed her as a child, as she desperately longed to cup the thick flow of it in her palms.

Annie thought of that same child, a girl going on eight, clawing her fingers into wet mulch and hard, dark dirt, her feet and ankles soaked and itching from the cold dew of the grass, pink nightgown stuck to goosebumped, sweating skin. Her mind’s eye saw little Annie’s white cotton panties, dropped on the emerald grass next to the flower bed, waiting to be buried along with her notions of innocence, justice, and goodness in the world.

White panties, green carpet.

To her right, the horn let out three choked brays. Annie slipped off her sensible leather heels where she stood and waded cautiously along the side of the road, stepping gingerly in hopes of avoiding glass or sharp rocks, the soles of her pantyhose immediately wet and gritty.   

She located a particularly large chunk of what she thought might be granite. The rock was incredibly heavy, and she was small, but Annie found she could lift it to at least chest height.

White mist drew her in like a UFO, framed by the branches of hulking, sentinel trees brimming with artificial light. It took several minutes to carefully cradle and walk the rock to the edge; she stopped to rest for a short period midway, because she didn’t want to entirely exhaust her arms.

The horn let out a short blat as soon as Annie peered her head over the lip of the road, as if she had startled the car itself. The headlights flashed, off-on-off-on, and the whites of Mr. Bircher’s wild, rolling eyes were visible in the momentary darkness.

The snap of the great rock plummeting through the windshield was like a boot heel through thin ice. This was followed by a meaty crack that informed the small, stiff woman standing ten feet above that her rock had not missed its intended target.

Annie Cavanaugh brushed off the dirty soles of her feet with her equally dirty palms and slipped on her heels. Shrouded in the soft, swirling white, she started a careful path back toward the car.

She thought Kate might be missing her.

Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2020, all rights reserved.

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