Tilt by Nick Rossi

Ryan Tauss Ryan Tauss

The entire teeming recess area can be seen in wide-angle from the window of Room 202, which occupies the southwest corner of the second floor of Franklin Elementary. The shades are only half-open today. Room 202 is decorated in the style of every elementary school classroom in the continental US: tack-pocked bulletin boards covered in large swaths of loosened black paper material, bordered in wavy, yellow, pencil-patterned strips of cardboard, color-coded signs bearing acronyms that make respect and participation proper nouns, tiny desk/chair pairs arranged in a square “U” that contains another island of six miniature seats. In Room 202, sloppily drawn faces of past presidents hang at various angles and heights all around the room’s perimeter, a bright blue banner above the stained dry erase board reads BE NICE WORK HARD in letters large enough to seem a message from God herself.

With his students scrambling around on the playground, Mike Koski sits with his hands behind his head in the only normal-human sized chair in his classroom. The chair is not a replica of those of his students, but rather a rolling, navy blue microfiber one that the kids view as a privilege to sit in. The room is dark and silent, except for a soft light seeping through the shades and occasional screech rising from an unidentifiable mouth below.

Mike typically spends his lunch in his room, so he knows that no one will miss him in the lounge or at the vending machine. He locked the door and flipped both switches under one of the million little laminated signs he has hung around the room. The sign above the light switches is an offensive yellow-green background with equally gag-inducing burnt orange text that strongly suggests to TURN OFF WHEN YOU LEAVE! Mr. Koski hadn’t been leaving when he’d clicked the switches down ten minutes ago.

Mr. Koski now leans back in his chair until his knuckles, laced loosely behind his head, touch the cool cinder block of the wall behind him. He looks to be considering the low hanging nimbus clouds, rolling eastward, visible through the vinyl slats of the shades from this particular angle of reclination, or floating himself through thoughts somewhere else entirely. In fact, he is doing both, though less the former than the latter. He’s vaguely wondering what type of person his mother thinks he is.

Gently rocking forward, Mike’s wandering soles find the floor, one foot at a time, palms still pressed gently against the hair that covers the back of his head. Colorless sunlight illuminates the surface of the desk under which he lifts and lowers his heels, slowly tipping his body as he does. The desk’s surface is faux wood and empty except for a thick blue plastic tumbler, decorated with lime green octopi, and a fifth of whiskey.

The whiskey had been purchased at the gas station that morning, along with a pack of the cigarettes he’d recently started smoking again. The whiskey had been a complete afterthought, grabbed from one of those cardboard towers near the register. It had been intended for post-work enjoyment, a habit that had shifted from the typical beer to the more idiosyncratic rum and root beer past month or so. Standing in line at the gas station waiting for the lottery machine to print somebody’s lucky numbers, he had remembered just how much Amy had liked whiskey and ginger ale before they’d had Nora. Nora was three now and it was Friday. Amy didn’t drink much anymore, but maybe nostalgia would entice her. So the bottle had found its way under the passenger seat of the Volvo. It hadn’t stayed under the seat long. Instead, Mike had shoved it into the old canvas backpack before heading into the building. The pack had shifted strangely with its weight as he’d bent over to find cup in one of the kindergarten classrooms. The search had taken longer than expected, the room only lit by a computer monitor forgotten from the day before.

Now, as his students play at recess, both the bottle and the cup sit shining dully on Mr. Koski’s desk. All the laminated and nightmarishly bright-colored, acronymed signage looks pale and faded in the available light. Mike Koski slumps so low in his chair that his pleather shoes stick out from under the metal sheeting inexplicably welded to the front of all mass produced desks, especially those of public school teachers. Elbows on the edge of the desktop and forefingers pressed against his temples, he looks either to be sliding under the imitation wood surface or physically attempting to pull the bags under his eyes up to an acceptable position. The effect is a facial expression of annoyance or amusement depending on perceptive predisposition.

Sitting so low in his normal-human-sized swivel chair that his neck could just about rest against the microfiber back, Mr. Mike Koski, fourth grade teacher, father and husband, soon to be thirty, mortgage and car payments pending, contemplates a vague interest that doesn’t make him feel very good at all. Studying the neon green octopi’s tentacles reaching outward into the solid blue void, Mike wonders what Canadian whiskey might taste like at room temperature, out of a child’s toy. The thought sparks his taste buds and the element of deviance gives him a nervous excitement. The thought to have a drink at work hadn’t even ever peeked into his mind before, let alone crossed it, but he couldn’t help feeling it might make the afternoon go by that much quicker. There was no way the kids would possibly be able to identify the smell of alcohol on his lips, leaning in to help with a geography worksheet or a mind map. If they did recognize it, they were too young to identify the scent as anything other than the way Daddy smelled after a few hours in the garage.

The blend of uncertain danger, secrecy, and the pleasure that comes from dismissing rules in preference of one’s own personal desires gives him a swirl in his stomach. Sitting up and pulling himself close enough the the desk so his knees press against the aforementioned metal sheet, terrifically cold even through thick cords, he reaches for the bottle with both hands. Holding the neck with his right hand, he twists the cap off with his left at a torturingly slow speed, as if to savor the snapping of every aluminum bond along the seam. Conquering the urge to sniff the mouth of the bottle, he considers the sloshing liquid for a moment before pouring himself three good seconds of straight whiskey. He’d foregone the root beer today unintentionally, the decision to grab the whiskey being so compulsive and unplanned for elementary classroom consumption.

Alone in the dim space, Mike looks down at half an octopi-encrusted tumbler’s worth of liquor with interest and caution. What if he gets caught by a student? By a colleague? Should he hide this from Amy? Would she find his indiscretion attractive or disappointing? Were his salary and benefits worth a few ounces of warm whiskey? Does this make him happy? Does this make him an alcoholic?

Mike visualizes his little girl being told by her mother why Dad is jobless and blacklisted, his face in the paper or on the internet under the headline “ELEM. TEACHER ENDANGERS STUDENTS, FIRED.” The swirling pool in his stomach is drying up, crippling in and condensing until it is a high-density steel ball. Even with all that, the magnetism of the cup’s contents only strengthens. All pressures could fog, fade and float away, just drift back and soften, with a few good sips. Besides that, he just wants to feel the rush of the thing, the very real danger of Life-As-He-Knows-It change that this could create. The satisfaction of a selfish foray into the alcoholic abyss, a controlled but developed habit, attracts him.

The room darkens further and dulls as the now rushing clouds threaten rain outside, heavy and soon. The shadows on the spongy, rubberish playground blend and disappear. A cool gust makes a few children retrieve their puffy vinyl jackets from whichever heap they’d dropped it in earlier. Scanning eyes check watches and shifting clouds and other sets of scanning eyes. The staff sentries confer and without much deliberation begin blowing whistles just as the first droplets of ice cold rain are felt on foreheads and the backs of tiny hands. A formless crowd assembles at the double doors, metallic shavings to a magnet.

Somehow no one registers the boy standing with arms out to his side, balancing himself against the stiffening wind and wobbling slide underneath his feet. The slide is a relic from a bygone time of less-cautious public school park construction, freestanding and easily twelve feet tall. Deemed the “Death Tower” by a few veteran staff members, it has all of the structural constitution of a yardstick held on an outstretched finger and is planted in a plot of beige rock.

With heads being counted and nobody yet realizing the absence of a particularly skinny, scruffy-headed third grader, the boy stands with pellets of rain pelting his arms and closed eyelids and lips, feeling light and strangely alive. His arms outstretched straight from his shoulders, he looks less like Christ and more like a skilled tightrope walker as he steadies himself against the slide. Standing at the top of the ladder proper, the boy has nothing to brace his shins or the sides of his shoes against besides the shallow ridge of the slide itself. He simply stands there, hearing and feeling the drizzle pick up then pour. The driving rain sounds like the popcorn bursting in the microwave as it hits the slides surface.

When the boy opens his eyes, his hair hangs limply in front of his face, blocking his vision. He swipes the tendrils away to look down the steel slope. He hadn’t known he’d wanted to do this until he’d started up the ladder, but now he was consumed by the thought of jumping headfirst down The Big Slide. He imagined himself completely horizontal, suspended in the air with the world stopped around him just before landing on the slick metal surface, arms pinned to his side, speeding downward and outward.

Only now, with his arms pulling back slightly and knees bending, does the boy consider the rock pit at the bottom. He can feel his face crashing into the rough dirt below the thin layer of pebbles, mangling his nose and glasses. What if the lenses shatter into his eyes? Even if he squeezes them shut tight at the last second, could the glass be sharp enough to cut through to the squishy eyeball beneath? Will he go blind? How much trouble will he get in with Ms. Roberts for this? What will his mom think? Will it feel good? Is it worth it?

Leaning forward, the little boy stares down at the pebbles and the silver strip he is about to feel. The arches of his sneakers are concave against the edge of the slide, shoulders moving forward, center of gravity shifting outward into the unoccupied space before and below him. Mike holds the rim of the tumbler just under his nose, enjoying the scent of the whiskey for a moment, before pressing the stiff plastic to his lips. The boy begins to pull his arms to his sides.

The man squeezes his eyes closed just as the little boy does, his knees straightening inside his jeans. The tumbler tilts forward, as does the boy, liquid splashing against two pairs of smiling lips, both stomachs tight with the thrill of the descent.

Nick Rossi is a middle school teacher living in Nashville, TN. He co-edits Sobotka Literary Magazine and serves coffee on the weekends.