Sarah Carrigan was dismissing her last class of the day when the secretary leaned in the door and handed her a note. “Hixton wants you,” she said. Sarah pressed her tongue to her palate in distaste. Hixton. What could he want?
“Bye, Ms. Carrigan.” Her student Nathan waved his whole arm as he bounced backward out the door. Sarah smiled and waved back, loving the boy’s dimpled, radiant face. “Goodbye Nathan. See you on Monday.”
Sarah’s smile faded as she looked down at the note.
In her two years at Bethel Bay Middle School, Principal Hixton had seldom spoken to her. The word from the rest of the faculty was: don’t bother him and he won’t bother you. Hixton ran the school by the book and rarely left his office. The note summoned her there now.
Sarah thought about it as she brushed her long wavy black hair and refastened it in a beaded hairclip. Hixton delegated the annual reviews to his vice principal, Mr. Turpin. They had already been done and hers were excellent. Could this have something to do with her tenure? She was eligible after this term. She had assumed it would be automatic, but they could keep her on probation for another year, though she couldn’t imagine why. Maybe Hixton was going to tell her that they had accelerated her tenure review and given her early tenure. Somehow she didn’t think that was it.
Sarah’s steps echoed against the battered metal lockers as she walked down the empty hallway toward the office. The walk seemed longer than usual. No one was at the front desk, and she slipped around the corner to Hixton’s inner sanctum.
Principal Hixton sat erect behind his desk. Buzz-cut gray hair, a red face and a heavy, square jaw made a brick of his head. He glanced up at her standing in the open doorway. His gaze settled on her breasts, making her wish that she had fastened the top button of her blouse.
“Have a seat.” Hixton indicated the chair in front of his desk but didn’t wait for her to sit. “Got some news for you. As you know, the district budget’s been cut again. Going to have to let you go.”
Sarah froze, still standing in the doorway. Her head was light, as if part of her had left the room. “But,” she heard herself say, “all the cuts were coming out of extra-curricular programs. The teaching staff is supposed to be the same. A school board decision.... ”
“No.” He cut her off. “I have discretion. Told the board I had a teacher who wasn’t performing well, in closed session. They agreed we didn’t need your position. Nussbaum can cover some of your classes, and Satterlee will take the rest.”
Anger erupted molten and flooded Sarah’s skull, burning her cheeks. “But … what is wrong with my performance? I have had excellent evaluations over the last two years. No one has ever said a word to me about poor performance. . . .”
“We’ve had complaints. Complaints from parents.” The man would not meet her eyes. He shifted his gaze from her chest to a spot on the wall. “Besides, you really think you are fit to teach children? Filling their heads with ungodly lies. It’s bad enough that state curriculum keeps creation science out, but you have to go and tell them lies about it.”
Sarah’s body went rigid—her jaw casehardened and her spine a steel rod. She couldn’t believe this was happening. She snapped out her response:
“Look. Mr. Hixton, I’ve got students, some students, whose parents believe that we were brought here by star people from Mars. If I taught Bible creationism, you know, then those parents would complain.”
Her voice began to quaver, but she went on: “Evolution is science; it has nothing to do with religion. All I’m doing is following the curriculum handed to us by the state, and you can’t fire me for that.”
Hixton narrowed his eyes as his gaze finally locked with hers. “I’m not firing you for that. Officially we’re letting you go for budget reasons. A layoff. No seniority, no tenure. Nothing you can do about it. I’m telling you, my view is that you are from Satan. But that’s just my view. There’s nothing on the record about that or about parent complaints. Just budget. Last hired, first fired. Your husband has a good job; you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Sarah’s jaw slackened as the man’s words drove into her gut. She searched for a response but could think of nothing. She turned and walked out.
Sarah blinked as she emerged into the fresh spring afternoon. There was something wrong with her eyes. Blackness soaked the edges of her vision. She was in a tunnel. In the center of the tunnel was the schoolyard, where flowering plum trees glowed pink and chartreuse in the sun. Behind her was Hixton, lurking in his dark office cave. Slowly, as she walked away from the building, the spring sunlight dissolved the tunnel. She had to escape now, quickly. She got in her car and drove through town, headed for the beach.
Bethel Bay was a typical small town on the south coast of Oregon. There was the wild ocean to the west, and in the east, muddy, clear-cut hills rose behind the town. The lumber mill blocked the best view of the ocean. The town itself was little more than a collection of tacky clapboard buildings strung out along the highway like trash spilled from the back of someone’s pickup.
Bethel Bay’s bland eateries and accommodations had little to offer sophisticated city tourists, but still they came for the sparkling white sand beach sweeping in a long arc north of town. Dark stacks of sea-drenched rock rose from the near-shore waters where the relentless waves had chiseled them into eerie turrets and gothic arches. The cold ocean caroused in these castles, surging and spraying cascades of foam high into the air. People walked the long strand lost in the sweep of cormorants and the droning om chant of the surf.
South of town lay the broad mouth of the Savage River, opening in a mile-wide grin as it shoved a tongue of silt-laden water out into the ocean. A road ran along the banks of the river, headed east into the mountains, where twenty miles inland the pavement gave way to a nearly endless network of crude dirt logging roads. Up one of these tracks was a three-hundred-and-sixty-acre holding of private land surrounded by the Siskiyou National Forest — the old Savage Ranch.
Vanloads of flower children had come in the early 1970s, looking for land, and one summer evening, a ’64 Ford Econoline van had huffed and whined its way up the steep grade of Forest Service Road number twelve-ninety-two and deposited Babs Shepard and her six-year-old son Kevin at Savage Ranch. The ranch was home to a group of hippie squatters who were scraping together the funds to buy it, and Babs had a savings account. She built a simple cabin and settled in with her son.
Thirteen years later, Kevin met Sarah at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He was an English major; she was in biology. They fell in love.
Kevin brought Sarah home to Savage Ranch, and she fell in love all over again with the land and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness—a vast territory that lay just beyond the eastern boundary of the ranch. It was known for its botanical wonders and Sarah the biologist considered it her own secret garden.
Kevin and Sarah dedicated their spring and summer breaks to hiking the rugged trails over craggy ridges and down into precipitous canyons. There was plenty of time for idling among giant firs, cedars and pines, and dipping into the deep green pools of the boulder-strewn rivers.
On their first overnight trip, the summer after she had met Kevin, Sarah lay naked on a sun-warmed rock in the middle of a river so clean you could drink from it. Stretched out on her stomach, she felt the boulder’s stored heat soak into her hips and breasts as she listened to the water. Her body absorbed the sounds vibrating through air, water and rock. There was a light constant tinkling, a rushing like a thousand whispering cellos, a deep, irregular chuckling. She leaned out over the stream, dipped her face in it and drank deeply. Slowly, she rolled back and touched her wet, tingling lips to Kevin’s for a kiss. In that moment she was changed, bonded to the land and the man who joined her to it. This place would be her home forever.
Sarah finally stopped shaking as she approached the turn for the beach parking lot. She parked, got out of the car and stretched, inhaling the fresh sea air.
Barefoot, she ran north along the wet, packed surf line. “Stupid bastard, stupid bastard,” she chanted over and over to herself as she ran, jamming her heels into the spongy surf-soaked sand. She kicked up a slurry of sand and water that spackled her slim, muscular legs.
Sprinting a final fifty yards, she threw herself onto a drift of white sand. She lay panting, curled on the sun-warmed, wind-rippled flank of the dune, embracing it like a giant mother.
She thought about the parents who complained. She wondered how many there were and remembered the note she had gotten from Cara Dumont’s mom the previous fall: “My little girl don’t need to hear she is related to a monkey. We don’t believe in that so knock it off.” Sarah had responded by sending Mrs. Dumont a copy of the state curriculum including the optional unit on primate evolution.
She stared at a sand flea hopping blindly around on the dune and realized that she should have seen this coming. She had not taught primate evolution her first year. She had started with the origins of one-celled life and stopped at the end of the Cretaceous. No one complained. Sarah felt the irony of it. Apparently, it was okay for dinosaurs to evolve. But this year she had decided to add in the optional unit on primates. She had wondered why it was optional and figured that it was probably covered in high school. Now she realized that it was never covered at all in places like Bethel Bay.
What should she do? She could try another school district, but that would mean a longer commute. Soon all she could think of was Kevin. She needed to talk to him, and he would be done with his Poet’s Club meeting soon. She headed back to her car and drove across town to the high school.
Sarah slid over as Kevin got in and took the wheel. His straight brown hair grew in a glossy pelt on his head, and his trim beard and mustache were sleek around his handsome face. Her Kevin-Bear. She hugged him tight and told him what had happened.
“It’s like a witch hunt,” she said, as they drove up the mountain toward home. “Hixton would just as soon burn me at the stake.”
“Yeah, he’s pretty bad. But hey, the old inquisitor should kick off soon, or at least retire. Then you can get your job back. In the meantime, let’s get you on at the high school.”
“But I love my middle school kids. Anyway, Bethel High won’t be hiring until somebody retires or quits.” She stared out the car window at the cows grazing in a field full of old stumps by the river. “What I don’t get is the board; why didn’t they support me?”
“Well, let me take a guess. There’s Mrs. Teece. Isn’t her son the coach for after-school soccer? Maybe she made some kind of deal to let you go in exchange for keeping the soccer program.” Sarah groaned. That had to be it.
“Hixton.” Kevin said. “He always was an extra-churchy type. I sure am glad Russ Miller isn’t like that.”
Sarah nodded. “Um hmm. At least your job is secure.”
Kevin had been a star player on Bethel Bay’s basketball team and the town remembered him fondly, although he had his problems too. He encouraged his students to publish in a class literary journal, and some parents objected to the uncensored expressions of teenage anger and lust. But Kevin’s principal was an easy-going man who supported him.
They crossed the border into the national forest, where tall firs still lined the road. Shafts of tree-filtered sunlight swirled around Sarah’s face as Kevin took the tight curves up the mountain towards home. She blinked back a tear.
Kevin nudged her with his elbow. “Hey, you know Hixton works on his brother’s sheep ranch on weekends. I heard he secretly has a thing for little lambs. He’s been a bachelor his whole life, so he must do something to get his rocks off.” Kevin flashed a wicked grin and his thick eyebrows wriggled up and down. “We’ll hide out in the pasture some night with a camera and catch old Ezra in the act. Then you can blackmail him.”
Sarah couldn’t help it. She laughed. She stroked her husband’s arm and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. Kevin always knew how to make her laugh.
“Oh my god, it’s unbelievable to me these people don’t accept evolution. How can they ignore the evidence?”
Kevin snorted. “Don’t go looking for rationality in Bethel Bay.
This is the Oregon Bible Belt.”
“But evolution doesn’t mean you can’t believe in God. Why can’t God be the laws of the universe—the force that guides evolution?” Sarah paused and scowled. “Simple chemicals become complex beings under the influence of the unified fields of gravity and electromagnetics as determined by God. God isn’t some kind of cosmic wood carver who sets things down that are already finished. That’s what I told my class, anyway.”
“You did the right thing,” Kevin said. They left the Forest Service road and drove slowly up their half-mile of rough dirt driveway.
Sarah was silent, wondering if she really had, and realized that it didn’t matter now. Her job was gone. Walking down the steep path to their door she said, “I guess I’ll have plenty of time now to work on the house.”
The house was nestled into a south-facing hillside two hundred feet above the narrow valley floor that lay at the heart of Savage Ranch. In the valley was a ten-acre meadow along the creek bottom where the community garden grew scraggly tomatoes and brawny broccoli in the cool mountain air. Most of the two-dozen houses on the land were perched on the hillsides surrounding the garden.
Sarah and Kevin had built the house themselves, with help from Kevin’s old high school buddies and their Savage Ranch neighbors. The living, dining and kitchen areas ran along the south side of the house, and bedrooms were back up against the hill on the north
side. The south wall was glazed to let sun in during the winter, with a roof overhang to keep it out during the summer. A wood stove provided heat, and solar panels on the roof made their electricity. All that was left were what Kevin referred to as “cosmetic details.”
Now Sarah was thankful for all the unfinished details. She looked at the kitchen with its raw sheetrock walls and makeshift plywood cabinets and realized that she would have plenty to keep her busy without a job. She petted their cats, Teasel and Muumuu, and went outside to check on the hens. Kevin started chopping vegetables for one of his wonderful pasta dishes.
After dinner they sat on the deck sipping wine. The sun had dropped below the low ridges to the west, and a wash of crimson still lingered on the high craggy peaks in the east.
Sarah gazed out at the distant peaks and grieved for the loss of her classroom and her precious relationships with the children. Then her thoughts turned to Sunrise School, a small private school that a group of Savage Ranch parents ran cooperatively. An old cabin on the land served as the schoolhouse. About a dozen children of all ages attended, including a few from outside families who wanted an alternative to the public school.
“I know what I’m going to do,” she told Kevin, “I’m going to talk to Heather tomorrow about working at Sunrise. It doesn’t pay much but I’d have a lot more freedom to teach what I want. And I’d get to be with the children.” Sarah almost choked on the word.
Kevin winced. Having a child was an old topic between them.
Sarah looked at him and a lump rose in her throat. She turned her gaze back to the mountains. She knew Kevin hated to disappoint her, but he had to stick by his principles. That’s the kind of person he was. Still, she had tried to change his mind.
The discussion would always end with Kevin ticking off all the problems caused by overpopulation: global warming, pollution, the energy crisis, hunger, war, disease. As a scientist and rational thinker she had to agree with him. She was fully aware that it was folly to bring a child into this world.
When she first met Kevin, she had been ambivalent about children. She thought she might want a family some time in the future but found herself persuaded by his rationale against it. But one day a feeling sparked in her and she found that the more deeply she fell in love with Kevin, the more she wanted to have his child. She begged him for just one, but he refused. He agreed to adopt, and finally she had to be satisfied with that. It was their only choice since he had gotten that vasectomy last year.
“Sarah . . .” Kevin touched her cheek and made her look at him. He gave her a guilty smile. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head, butted it into his shoulder and then settled into his arms. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m going to like Sunrise School better.”
Sarah would come to terms with things. She had learned long ago that she wouldn’t get everything she wanted from life. Here, surrounded by the beauty of the mountains and with Kevin’s warm arms around her, she was nearly convinced that what she had was enough.
copyright 2005 - Kelpie Wilson