Excerpt from Comfort and Joy

Chapter One


ROBIN TORE HER EYES from the paper turkeys tacked to the bulletin board along the side wall and faced the front of the room again. She felt like a restless school child—which wasn’t surprising, given that she had spent nearly half an hour squeezed into an undersized chair attached to an undersized desk in room 128 of the Brushy Pine Elementary School, listening to Eileen Becker describe, in an offensively chipper voice, what she had been doing with her seven- and eight-year-old charges for the past three months, and what she was planning to do with them for the rest of the term. The classroom’s overhead fluorescent lights buzzed, the bright yellow walls cloyed and the green chalkboards gave off an aroma of dust. The flooring consisted of linoleum tiles in a drab pattern of gray and beige. Every time Robin tried to squirm into a more comfortable position at the tiny desk, the soft soles of her loafers squeaked against the tiles.

She forced herself to pay attention to what Ms. Becker was saying. “So, as you can see,” the young woman at the front of the room chattered, “we did a great deal to commemorate Thanksgiving.” Robin found the teacher’s sunshiny smile and sing-song voice oddly irritating. “But kids will be kids,” Ms. Becker continued. “They’re already badgering me about Christmas. So, I’ve begun making plans for our class to celebrate that holiday, too. The turkeys were such a hit, I’ve prepared some lovely templates of Christmas trees for the children to color in.” She lifted from her desk a sheet of white paper featuring an outline of a pine tree and displayed it for the parents.

Robin turned back to the side wall to study the turkeys. Twenty-four of them, each a black outline decorated with individual touches by the children, each labeled with a student’s name in the upper left-hand corner. Searching the row of drawings, Robin located the one with Philip’s name printed on it and grinned, experiencing a private surge of pride. Not only had he crayoned most of his bird a garish orange, but in place of wings, he had drawn large purple hands.

Eileen Becker was less than inspiring. Robin should have given more weight to Philip’s constant griping about his teacher. “She’s boring,” he frequently complained in his distinctive seven-year-old whine. “You know me, Mom, I can put up with a lot, but she’s boring.”

Now that she’d spent the past half-hour listening to the teacher describe the curriculum and activities of her second-grade class, Robin had to agree with Philip. Her heart brimmed with sympathy for her son. The Belleford, Connecticut school system might not be the best in the world, but even here, teachers ought to know better than to stifle the creativity of their students by making them color already outlined pictures of turkeys. Or trees.

“In addition to coloring and decorating the trees, we’ll be performing a classroom skit,” Ms. Becker went on. “I’ve found a marvelous dramatization of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, for the children to perform. I haven’t cast any of the parts yet, but the children adore dramatic play. And, of course, it’s a good learning experience for them. Dramatic play teaches co-operation…”

And it teaches kids how to take orders from a director, Robin added silently. She tried to catch Joanna’s eye, but Joanna was sitting sideways in the neighboring desk, her legs extended to her left and her back to Robin, her head angled over her right shoulder in order to see the teacher. Joanna was a good three inches taller than Robin. No way could she have folded her lanky limbs into the cramped space beneath the minuscule desk. Even so, Robin preferred banging her knees on the underside of the built-in book tray to courting a stiff neck. Thanks to her twisted position, Joanna would probably be in need of ibuprofen—or maybe a chiropractor—by the time they got home.

Stop thinking about going home, Robin silently scolded herself. Open School Night was important. She was here to learn everything she could about what was going on in Philip’s class. Still, she wondered if his mind wandered as much as hers did when Ms. Becker went on and on in that annoyingly chanting voice.

“We’re also going to have a grab-bag gift party,” Ms. Becker announced. The perfect circles of her auburn curls bounced around her face as she spoke. Robin stared at her hair, trying to guess whether it had been permed or her bubbly curls were a genetic gift of. “If any of your children want to exchange presents on their own, I request that you make arrangements for that outside of class, so other children won’t feel left out. But the grab-bag idea—about which you’ll be receiving more details in a hand-out I’ll be sending home with the kids—seems to me to epitomize the concept of Christmas as a time of giving. That’s why I think it’s so important that we celebrate these traditional rituals in class.”

“Excuse me, but don’t you think that celebrating Christmas in a public school might be riding roughshod over the Constitution?”

The voice came from the doorway. Slamming her knees on the smooth underside of the desk, Robin shifted in her chair to see who had raised the interrupted Ms. Becker with a constitutional challenge, of all things. A man was stood in the doorway, leaning casually against the frame. He was clad in blue jeans and a bomber-style leather jacket unzipped to reveal a sweater which hugged his chest in a supremely attractive way. His body appeared hard and lean and very nicely proportioned. Robin shifted in her seat to catch a glimpse of the face that accompanied such a studly body.

She wasn’t disappointed. The man was gorgeous.

“Whose daddy is that?” Joanna whispered.

The same thought crossed Robin’s mind, but she dismissed it with the totally ridiculous notion that any guy that good-looking couldn’t possibly be a daddy. The man had a thick mane of coal-black hair that fell about his face in long windswept waves. His eyes were nearly as dark as his hair, and they were set deep beneath a high, fierce brow. He had a hawk-like nose, thin lips and a square jaw.

Who would have guessed that men that good-looking actually lived in sleepy little Belleford, Connecticut? And had children who were Philip’s classmates?

She wondered who his wife was, and whether she was in the classroom, crammed into one of the other undersize desks. Lucky woman, she thought. Not that looks were all that important. He could be a jerk. He could be a bully. He could be a pompous blowhard who liked to intrude on gatherings and spout constitutional law.

But still…a man who looked like he did could be forgiven a lot.

Not many fathers had shown up for the Open School Night, at least not in Ms. Becker’s classroom. A few stood around the perimeter of the room; evidently, they weren’t going to attempt to fit themselves into the kid-size seats. But most of the attendees were women. Mothers. Quite a few, Robin noticed, who were eyeing the man in the doorway with curiosity, and perhaps a touch of lust.

Robin didn’t blame the fathers who’d failed to attend Open School Night. Some, like Joanna’s husband, were at home, babysitting their children so their wives could meet their kids’ teachers and learn about their classes. Others, like Robin’s ex-husband, didn’t live in Belleford. Robin had parked Philip at Joanna’s and Glenn’s house for the evening. Their son Jeff was Philip’s best friend, and Robin was grateful Glenn had volunteered to skip Open School Night and stay home with the boys so Joanna and Robin could be there.

She would have enjoyed continuing to ogle the man in the doorway—his face was so much more interesting than anything Eileen Becker might have to say, and his body…well, he was clothed, but Robin had a good imagination. However, she hadn’t come to Open School Night to check out men—especially men who were likely married, with children. She dutifully repositioned herself to face the front of the room, where Ms. Becker stood looking flustered and a bit peeved. “Hello, Jesse,” she said, managing a weak smile. Robin was surprised. That seemed like an awfully informal way of addressing the father of one of her students.

Unless he wasn’t a student’s father. He could be a friend of Ms. Becker’s. Maybe the teacher’s boyfriend. Any man that handsome had to be already taken.

If they were friends, though, or lovers, why was Ms. Becker looking so uncomfortable? Was she embarrassed that her guy had shown up while she was conducting her Open House spiel? Or angry that he’d dared to question her in front of a room full of parents? “I don’t think there’s any need to worry about the Constitution,” she said, partly to the man and partly to the rest of her audience. “We discuss Hanukkah in class, too, of course. We discuss the history of this special Jewish holiday. It isn’t as if we deal with Christmas to the exclusion of all other religious holidays.”

“You discuss Hanukkah,” echoed the man. His voice was low and smooth, a rich, lustrous baritone that might belong to a radio disc jockey. He quirked one eyebrow skeptically as he regarded the teacher at the front of the room. “Do you also discuss the Eastern Orthodox Christmas? Tet? Ramadan? Native American seasonal rites? And let’s not forget the winter solstice. There could be one or two druids in your class.”

“Well…” Ms. Becker moistened her lips anxiously and grinned. “The fact is, the children are the ones who want to discuss Christmas. I mean, it’s all around them. Even before Thanksgiving, the stores were already starting to put up their Christmas decorations. And, let’s face it, Christmas is a school vacation. I’m sure that makes it even more significant to them. You know how kids love their vacations.” Her attempt at a joke, Robin thought with a sigh.

The man shrugged. Observing the graceful motion of his broad shoulders as they shifted inside his jacket, Robin sighed again. Sitting in a second-grade classroom, pretzeled within the confines of a tiny desk, was not the appropriate place to be acknowledging that she ought to do something about her moribund social life. For all she knew, Belleford was teeming with equally stunning specimens of manhood—specimens who didn’t happen to be dating boring elementary school teachers with overly curly hair. Being a divorced mother with a demanding job didn’t leave Robin much time for meeting men, but… She ought to do something about getting out and meeting people. Maybe if she did, the man in the doorway wouldn’t look quite so attractive to her.

He made no move to enter the room, even though he had disrupted the teacher’s presentation. Robin wondered whether it was easier to attack Ms. Becker’s methods when you weren’t doubled up to fit into a student-size chair. She herself had a few issues she wanted to raise with Ms. Becker—pedagogical, not constitutional—but she preferred to wait until they could speak privately. Unlike the man in the doorway, Robin didn’t want to embarrass her son’s teacher in front of a room full of attentive parents.

“Well,” Ms. Becker said, tossing the man an edgy smile and then directing her gaze back to everyone else in the room. “I’d like the opportunity to meet each of you individually. So why don’t you stand and stretch your legs and have a look at our displays, and I’ll circulate among you.”

Joanna immediately pried herself out of her seat and made a great show of unkinking her joints. Robin took longer to climb out of her chair, probably because she had been more deeply imbedded in it, and Joanna helpfully gripped Robin’s arm to prevent her from falling while she wriggled her right leg out from under the book tray. “One more minute in that chair and I’d be crippled for life,” Robin moaned.

Joanna laughed and shoved her shaggy brown hair back from her face. “What do you think of Becker?” she asked Robin.

Robin rolled her eyes, then lifted her jacket from the back of her chair. “Not much, if you want to know the truth,” she admitted, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I guess she seems competent, but she isn’t very exciting.”

Joanna concurred with a nod. “Last August, when Dot Hasselhopf found out Joey was assigned to Becker’s class, she made such a stink they reassigned him to Greenblatt’s class. Greenblatt’s supposed to be the best of the second-grade teachers at Brushy Pine. Now I feel guilty that I didn’t throw a hissy fit, too.”

“Don’t feel guilty,” Robin consoled her. Mothers had more than enough to feel guilty about without shouldering the blame for their children’s fate in teacher assignments. “As soon as I get Becker alone for a minute, I’m going to throw a very discreet hissy fit. She probably isn’t such a bad teacher—she’s just young and inexperienced. You and I know more about seven-year-olds than she could ever learn in her education courses.”

“I’d like to join you in that hissy fit,” Joanna said wistfully. “But I’ve got to save my strength to face off with the snake. Jeff told me that if I didn’t say hi to the snake, he’d never speak to me again.” Shoring up her courage, Joanna stalked to the windowsill, which held a variety of science projects: incubating eggs, grapes drying into raisins, slices of bread sprouting turquoise mold, and, inside a large glass tank, a corn snake which, according to Philip, was named “Cookie Monster” because the children liked to feed him cookies from their lunch boxes. Fortunately, Philip hadn’t issued any ultimatums about Robin’s developing a personal relationship with Cookie Monster, and she kept her distance from the tank. She wasn’t squeamish, but… A snake. No.

Scanning the room, she noticed Ms. Becker standing to one side of her desk, surrounded by a throng of jabbering parents. Robin slipped her jacket on, smoothed her hair back and refastened the barrette holding it in a limp ponytail. Her hair was as fine and blond as it had been when she was a toddler, but she no longer had the time to set it and condition it. It was so much easier just to pin it at the back of her head and be done with it.

On the other hand, she thought as she stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jacket and joined the mob of parents surrounding Ms. Becker, maybe a permanent wouldn’t take much effort to maintain. A few springy curls—nothing as tight and foamy as Ms. Becker’s, but maybe a body wave…

“You’re Philip Greer’s mother, aren’t you?” Ms. Becker picked Robin out of the crowd and extended her hand. “I’m so glad you came tonight. There’s something I wish to discuss with you. Excuse me,” she said to the other parents, gripping Robin’s elbow and steering her toward the bulletin board.

Dread curled through Robin’s gut. Was Philip in trouble at school? Was he failing social studies or spelling, or misbehaving? Why else would the teacher haul Robin off, sidestepping all the other parents, for a one-to-one chat?

Inhaling to steady her nerves, she asked, “Is there a problem with Philip?”

“I’m not exactly sure. He’s such a bright boy, his reading and arithmetic skills are way above grade level, and he’s very popular with his classmates. But…well, look at this.” She pointed at the bright orange turkey with the purple hands. “He drew this.”

Robin gave the drawing a closer inspection. All right, so his orange scribbles had strayed across the outline in a few places. So he’d added faint blue antennae to the turkey’s head. So what?

She turned to the teacher and awaited an explanation. “Hands,” Ms. Becker murmured ominously. “He drew hands on his turkey. Doesn’t that strike you as…as somehow weird?”

Robin suppressed a grin. If Ms. Becker hadn’t already figured out that ninety-nine percent of all seven-year-olds were weird, she ought to tear up her teaching certificate and try another line of work. “Did you ask him about it? I’m sure he had a perfectly good reason for giving his turkey hands instead of wings.”

“Well, yes, I did question him,” Ms. Becker conceded. “He told me that his turkey came from another planet—Geek or Bleep or something—”

“Gleek,” Robin supplied. Gleek was a make-believe universe Philip had invented a few months ago. Whenever Robin ordered him to do something he didn’t want to do, he would argue that on Gleek, the kids never had to make their beds or put their dirty clothes into the hamper or do their homework when their favorite shows were on TV.

“That’s right. Gleek.” Ms. Becker nodded emphatically. “He told me that on Gleek, the turkeys always have hands because turkeys can’t fly anyway, so their wings don’t serve any purpose, and because nobody likes to eat the wings at Thanksgiving. He told me the Gleekians—or whatever he called them—he told me they decided to breed their turkeys to have something useful, like hands, instead of wings.”

The explanation struck Robin as brilliant. She had yet to meet anyone who liked to eat turkey wings. But she didn’t want to come across as a gushing mama, so she only smiled. “Philip has an active imagination,” she said, “and I like to encourage him. This is only a suggestion, Ms. Becker, but instead of having the children color inside the turkey outlines—or the Christmas tree outlines that you’ve prepared for them, why don’t you let them create their own pictures from scratch? Why not have them cut trees out of construction paper, any shape they want—and any color, for that matter—and then they can cut out decorations and glue them on. I know it’s not my business to tell you how to run your class, but I think the children would enjoy the project a whole lot more if they could design their own trees.”

“Construction paper…” Ms. Becker gave the idea solemn consideration. “I’m afraid that’s the art teacher’s domain—”

“Then let them make their trees during the art period.” Robin hoped she didn’t sound presumptuous. Come across as too critical , and Philip might get stuck dealing with the fall-out. He was the one who had to face Ms. Becker every day, the one getting grades and report cards from her. But Robin couldn’t stifle herself. She kept her tone as pleasant and polite as she could as she continued, “I think it would be more challenging for the kids to make their own trees. And instead of having them enact A Christmas Carol, why not let them write their own skit? They might come up with a story closer to home, something they can identify with. Dickens is wonderful, but if you really want the kids to enjoy dramatic play, why not let them write their own dramas?”

Apparently she was coming across as too critical. Ms. Becker pursed her glossy pink lips and her eyes narrowed on Robin. “These are second graders, Ms. Greer. If there’s a budding Shakespeare among them, that’s just fine. But really, they need direction, they need guidance—”

“And they need a little freedom to use their imaginations,” Robin argued. It was too late to back off. She only hoped Philip wouldn’t have to pay a price for his mother’s opinions. “They don’t have to be Shakespeare. They just have to have the opportunity to invent their own worlds. Like Gleek. I’d be willing to bet at least half the kids in class escape to a fantasy world like Gleek every now and then.”

“Well,” Ms. Becker said, then issued a dubious huff. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good.” Realizing the need to appease the teacher, Robin added, “I think you’re doing a terrific job. Philip’s learning so much this year.” The part about the terrific job Ms. Becker was doing was an overstatement, but Philip had learned a great deal in the class so far, and Robin felt that a compliment was in order. Thirty-three years of living had taught her the benefits of diplomacy.

Ms. Becker’s face brightened. “Thank you. I do try.”

“And the children are learning so much.” Stroke, stroke.

Ms. Becker preened slightly. If she’d been one of those turkey drawings pinned to the wall, her feathers would be fluffing right now. “This has been a difficult autumn for me. I’m glad to know I’m reaching the children.”

Robin nodded and offered a polite farewell. A difficult autumn, she pondered, watching as Ms. Becker was engulfed by another swarm of eager parents. Although Robin’s primary concern was for her son, she felt a pang of sympathy for the young woman. Obviously, she was coping with problems that had nothing to do with her pupils. She was only human, a fact that seven-year-old boys generally didn’t take into account when bitching about their teachers.

“You told her off, didn’t you.”

The voice floated over Robin’s shoulders from behind, deep and mellifluous. It seemed to enter her mind not through her ears but through some other, secret route. It was low, seductive, insinuating, and it made her scalp tingle. She spun around and found herself staring into the dark, luminous eyes of the man Ms. Becker had called Jesse.