The manager talks about getting engaged

Jeff Kass

I think I’m ready, he says. What was it like for you? Did youdo anything special? The story is, yes, it was, in fact, special,but not because of any particular planning, or creativeproposal-ing. It was spontaneous and, actually, I don’twant to talk about it. Despite all my admonitionsto students about vanquishing vagueness, it’s nota story I like to share. It involves Santa Cruz and sea lionsand a tall bearded man playing bagpipes in the midstof a mournful fog, and that’s all I’m going to say.The story is for me and for Karen and, maybe, one dayfor our children. I hold it tight to my chest and I wantto keep it like that, an heirloom.Except, it’s nearing 5 a.m. when he asks,and I’m mopping the floor. Sort of.  It’s beena long, unnerving night, ice and snow and roadsthat want to bite, and he’s counting moneyin the register and accomplishing other mysteriouspaperwork-related functions—I think I madeabout $105 in tips, add on the 54 cents per mileand the $5.25 an hour salary and I’m around 180bucks for eleven hours, not horrible—but the floorsneers daunting and salty and the water in the mop-bucket already swims swampy, so I’m swishing backand forth as quickly as I can but the truth is the world’snot a whole lot cleaner and my arms and upper back feellike I just survived six minutes of wrestling against a StateChamp, so I’m half-tempted to tell the story just to cheermy own damn self up.A university professor earlier tipped five dollarson a ninety-seven dollar bill, and he also declinedto meet me at the door in the midst of the snowiestbluster. Sent down a student clearly unpreparedto schlep seven pizzas (including one gluten-free)upstairs to the classroom, so I did it for him, an extraten minutes of my time while another customer’sdelivery camped in the car, and I don’t know whatkind of class it was, possibly marketing, somethingin the how-to-make-money-by-lying-to-people genre.About thirty undergrads inhabited the classroom, eachlikely capable of chipping in a buck, though none offered,and I considered making a public announcement exposingtheir instructor as a 6% tipper after he asked me a bunchof bullshit questions like do I get sick of pizza and doesmy car smell like pizza and so much of me wanted to say,listen up, students, the dude here who’s grading your papers,or, more likely, foisting that job onto a graduate assistant whogets paid little more than expired lettuce, is trying to make nicewith me, act like he recognizes the complexity of my humanity,but he just tipped 5 bucks on a 97-dollar bill and you do the math,that adds up to an asshole at the extreme tail of the bell curveand I got two kids I’m not putting to bed right now, not helpingwith their homework, not standing next to in the washroomas they floss and brush their teeth and I still got nine hoursto go on this shift, then it’s sleep two hours and snap my sorry assawake for my son’s hockey game, so if you learn one lesson this semester—how about it’s every person who’s ever served you anything, fedyou or cooked for you, or refilled your coffee or refolded a sweateryou left in a heap after fingering through the bargain rack—everydamn one of them might have a magical story comprised of sea lionsand bagpipes and mournful fog they hold close to their chests? But I don’t say any of that and I feel smaller for it. I want to bethat fiery teacher I once was, unafraid of losing his job, unwillingto compromise a principled belief or stand in muted silencewhen an explosion’s brewing in his throat and the manager’slooking up from his register, his own shoulders looking likepumpkins three weeks after Halloween, deflated and nibbledapart by squirrels, and I push the mop harder, try now to makethe floor Cinderella-sparkle, for we who close the store at 5 a.m.must be our own fairy godmothers, our own Prince Charmings,there is no one else in this moment for us, no one thinking of usbut us, and I polish that floor so it shines like a glass slipperand the bark of sea lions lurches upward from hundredsof feet below the craggy cliffs and it roars onto my tongue;actually, I say, special doesn’t begin to describe. It was in Santa Cruzand we were on this bluff and the wind had that kind of chill like somebodypressing fingernails into the hollow of your back so I gave her my sweatshirt.It was royal blue with, for some reason, the number 88 sewn onto the fronton a white patch, and we could hear some guy playing bagpipes, sendinghis screeching prayer into the mist and down below on the beach sea lions…down below on the beach. . .and she looked at me. . .and wecould hear… and she started nodding her head and I saidwhat are you saying yes to? What are you saying yes to? But I already knew.

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Jeff Kass teaches tenth-grade English and creative writing at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is the founder of the Literary Arts Program at Ann Arbor’s teen center, The Neutral Zone, where he was program director for twenty years. He is also the author of the award-winning short story collection Knuckleheads, the poetry collection My Beautiful Hook-Nosed Beauty Queen Strut Wave, and the thriller Takedown. He lives in Ann Arbor with the author Karen Smyte and their children, Sam and Julius.

Detroit , Michigan

Wayne State University

"I never really cared for poetry, but I truly loved Kass’s work. He speaks to all of our insecurities and vulnerabilities, giving a voice to what we want to say but rarely do. Yes, teachers are struggling to get by financially, and it’s a shame that education is not being made a higher priority in our society. Thank you, Jeff, for opening the door to this conversation in a creative and enriching way."
—David Hecker

"After twenty-plus years of teaching, I can say that these poems capture more of a teacher’s life than any news story, assigned manual, or documentary account ever could. To read them is to experience the inspiring, infuriating, hilarious, tedious, and quietly glorious lives lived by one teacher residing in the twenty-first century as a fully realized and flawed human being. They will speak to your heart and mind regardless of which side of the big desk you’ve ever been on."
—Sean Sabo

"Kass’s hip-hop poetic style illuminates the gritty yet inspiring realities of teaching today’s youth, while at the same time working a second job to make ends meet. Teacher/Pizza Guy will resonate with those who have ever strived to make a difference, no matter with kids by day, pizzas at night, or both. Kass is a distinctive poet with insight and compassion who ultimately ‘chooses bliss.’"
—Don Packard

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