A Star Tribune serialized novel by Richard Horberg

Chapter 5 continues

The story so far: Allen feels he's chosen the right line of work.

The first PTA meeting of the year was held in the school gym. Each teacher sat at a folding card table with his or her name prominently displayed on a 4-by-6 card. A larger table in the middle of the floor held coffee and doughnuts, courtesy of the Home Economics club. Parents, mostly mothers, circled the gym and stopped at tables of their choice, talking as much to each other as to the teachers.

On his table, Allen placed copies of the textbooks he was using, as well as a list of all his students' names, intending to place a check before each of those whose parents stopped by. He had prepared a little talk about the purpose of teaching literature, but had almost no occasion to use it. Instead, he indulged in the same kind of small talk he was offered.

"Yes, your son is a very good student."

"I'm really happy to have your daughter in my class."

"It's true that Tom doesn't say much in class, but when he does it's worth hearing."

JoAnne Winner's mother stopped, almost as effervescent and brightly dressed as her daughter. She flattered him by saying that little JoAnne talked about him all the time. Royal Knudson's father paused briefly and said he trusted that Allen would attend all the football games this year and watch his son score touchdowns. Allen hoped earnestly that one of Helen Vorgt's parents would come by. Neither did. Nor did Leo March's.

Surprisingly, the woman whose room he'd rejected when he first arrived in town, that little room next to the kitchen, showed up. Small, earnest, in her late thirties or early forties (she could hardly be less), wearing a dark coat and hatless, she sat down at Allen's table when it appeared most of the parents were about to leave. He was surprised at the smoothness of her skin and the luster of her hair, neither of which he had noticed at their first meeting. He wondered if she had rented her room to anybody else.

The woman turned out to be Leland Bowman's mother, the boy who'd sung a couple lines of "Tennessee Border No. 2" in class, the boy Allen hoped he'd won over. He hadn't. Outside the general restlessness of his sophomores, Leland had been his only problem student so far. He was sullen. He slouched in his chair and conspicuously looked out the window while Allen talked. Although intelligent enough, he appeared to read little of the assigned material and seemed to dislike him personally.

"I know Leland is not a very good student," she said.

"He comes to class every day."

"Does he? I wondered about that."

She told him — he was surprised at the confidence — that ever since she and her husband separated four years earlier, Leland had been a problem child. Not that her younger son was much different. Both of them had idolized their father, who had worked in the lumber yard. He'd played catch with them in the back yard, taken them hunting and fishing — even to Minneapolis to see a baseball game. But after he left they were not the same. They were devastated at first, then resentful. Unfortunately, she'd proven to be a poor substitute. Also, they didn't like the fact that she worked — in Lila's Fashion Shop. "They claim that none of the other kids' mothers work," she said. "But you know it's necessary, to make ends meet."

He didn't know why she was telling him the family history. "What are Leland's interests?" he asked.

"Oh, music. He plays the clarinet. It's his only comfort. And he's very good. Last year he won the Thorson prize for showing the most improvement in band. I was so proud of him. I thought that after that his behavior might improve, but it hasn't."

"Does he take part in any of the other musical activities in town?" Allen asked.

She shook her head. Her son was a loner, she confided, and refused to have anything to do with them. He even resented the prize the Thorson club gave him. "He says they're all dummies. Sons of Thor, he calls them."

Allen smiled. At least the boy knew who Thor was. "I'll try to encourage him to write about music," he said.

"Would you? I'd be so grateful."

"It's my job."

She hesitated, giving him a doubtful look. "You don't remember me, do you?" she asked.

"Yes, of course, I do."

"You took the room in Mrs. Algaard's house, I heard."

He didn't know whether or not he should apologize for declining her room. Certainly she could have used the money. And perhaps she wanted an adult male in the house for her boys' sake. At the same time, he was glad he had refused. Who would want to live in the same house with Leland Bowman, who would inevitably have compared him invidiously with his father?

"Yes, I did," he said. "It's very nice. I'm sure yours would have been too."

"It's funny — last year's English teacher, Mr. Kingston, said the same thing."

Sidney Kingston — about whom Superintendent Magnuson had warned him.

Allen noticed that another woman was waiting to talk to him. Leland's mother glanced back at her uneasily. "I've taken up enough of your time," she said. "But there's something I wanted to ask you. I wonder if you'd have time to write down a little list of books for me to read — not now, but later. You know the library here has nothing. Can we meet some time?"

"Of course," he said. "Do you have a phone?"

She wrote down her number for him — 58 — then stood up, smiled at the woman who was waiting and left.

He wondered if she'd asked Sidney Kingston for a list of great books too.

Tomorrow: Chapter 5 continues.