A Matter of Principle
by Brian Biswas
|part 1 of 3|
“I’m not sure I follow you, Charles,” I said. “I hear your words clearly enough, but I do not fully grasp their meaning. This issue of moral relativism — do you really mean to say that nothing is inherently good or evil?”
“That is exactly what I mean,” he replied. “And note your use of the word ‘inherently’. Consider the case of the wife who poisons her husband. You might think that a clear-cut evil deed. What if I told you the husband beat his wife nightly until she was black and blue and that he threatened to kill her if she contacted the police?”
“That is no excuse for murder.”
“Perhaps you would feel better if she had killed him quickly. A single bullet through the skull while he slept.”
“But nothing. She feared for her life. She was a prisoner in her home. She could not contact anyone. She had a right to self-defense.”
“She did, but even so her deed was evil.”
“I say it was not.”
I sighed. “Look,” I said exasperatedly. “If you are saying things aren’t always what they appear to be, I couldn’t agree with you more. But if you mean to imply, for example, that a murderer can justify the most heinous of crimes, that is a claim I simply cannot accept.”
He smiled and I realized I had fallen into a trap. He took a sip from a cup of Turkish coffee I had prepared for him at his request and smacked his lips. I had built a fire as I waited for him to arrive that evening and I watched him now as he stared vacantly into the flames. It was bitterly cold outside and a harsh wind was blowing, the limbs of a pine tree knocking ominously against the gutters. The winters in Pittsburgh were often brutal.
He opened a briefcase and pulled from it a manuscript of some sort. “Consider this story,” he began. “I believe it illustrates my point. I was eight years old when these events occurred and I know them to be true. My father repeated the incident in detail when I was older and I wrote it down. Even though time has fogged my mind I remember it as if it was yesterday.”
Jason Lewd — Charles read — was a loner. He lived in a two-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac in a middle class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Jason was thirty-seven years old, tall and stocky, with light-brown hair and blue eyes. He was married but had no children.
For the past several years he had worked as a postal clerk in the downtown branch. He was a hard-working employee and had always received favorable reviews. Even so, he associated with his co-workers only when necessary and was considered by most to be rather arrogant.
For his part, Jason complained to his wife that the other employees were crude in nature. Their talk disgusted him, he said, as well as the never-ending stream of tasteless jokes that were invariably of a sexual nature.
Jason’s wife was named Marie. She was seven years his junior. A petite woman with shoulder-length red hair, green eyes, and a beautiful complexion, she was — to put it plainly — a real beauty. Marie was an elementary school teacher at Creekside Elementary in the Pittsburgh public school system. She usually taught third grade though this year had taken over a fourth-grade classroom to fill in for a teacher who was on maternity leave.
Creekside was one of the older, more established schools in Pittsburgh. It was a large two-story brick building in the middle of town that served over eight hundred students. The principal, Sue Templeton, was well-liked and had been there twenty-five years, first as a teacher before moving into administration. It was Sue who had recruited Marie from a county school some years before. She fondly recalled the pride she’d felt when Marie won Teacher of the Year honors in only her second year at Creekside.
There was a sixth-grade teacher at Creekside named Rob Sullivan. Rob was new to the district. He was thirty-three years old, six feet two, with jet-black hair, thick arms and legs. His voice was a soothing baritone that echoed throughout the classroom. Rob was unmarried and he had a crush on Marie. He was open about his interest in the young schoolteacher, but always in a friendly, bantering way and she thought nothing of it.
“How is the charming Mrs. Lewd today,” he would say or, “Marie, you look lovely this morning,” or, if he was feeling particularly bold, “You look positively smashing in that red dress!”
Marie flirted with Rob as well, though she was only joking. Even so, she was not as cautious as she should have been. Gossip spread like wildfire at Creekside.
“I’m feeling fine,” she would reply with a smile or, “It’s nice to be noticed,” or, if she was feeling particularly flirtatious, “You are an alluring man!”
Rob was merely being friendly, Marie felt, but her husband thought otherwise.
“Come now, Jason,” she said to her husband one evening after dinner. “Rob is harmless.”
“I hardly think a man who sends a married woman love poems is harmless,” her husband replied with a frown.
“I think they’re rather good. Especially the one where he compares me to a summer’s day.”
Jason scowled. “They sound like they were written by one of your students.”
“Jason — you’re jealous!” She took his hand. “Please don’t worry.”
If only Jason could not worry. But that wasn’t his nature. And besides he knew what men would do for romance. He was surrounded by such men all day.
When the school year drew to a close, Marie announced she would not be returning. She gave no explanation. She had been teaching at Creekside for eight years and would be dearly missed, the principal said. Was there anything they could do?
Marie shook her head, no. It was purely a personal matter.
“Are you quite certain?”
“Perhaps a leave of absence instead? This would give you the option of returning—”
“No, please. My decision is final.”
* * *
That summer was the hottest on record in Pittsburgh. The temperature reached 104 degrees on several days and the humidity was stifling. One evening there was a ferocious storm with hundreds of lightning strikes. Wildfires burned on the outskirts of the city and lasted for days before finally burning out.
When September came things finally returned to normal. Creekside opened without Marie. Her classroom was taken over by a recent graduate from the university, a young woman with long blonde hair and starry eyes.
Rob missed Marie dreadfully. At first he was haunted by the thought she had left because of him. He had meant only to engage in playful banter, but perhaps he had gone too far. On further reflection he realized the idea was preposterous. Each knew and respected the bounds of their relationship. There was no point in torturing himself over what he knew — deep-down — was a wild improbability.
One day in late September he decided to go over to her house and let her know how things were going at Creekside. She hadn’t asked to be kept informed, which he had always thought odd, but surely she would appreciate a visit. He couldn’t imagine her simply staying home and doing — what?
To be honest, Rob felt uneasy about the way in which Marie had left. In the weeks before she resigned she hadn’t been herself; she was moody and seemed depressed. He had never gotten up the nerve to ask if something was wrong. She had never talked about her life outside of school. Only that she was married and had no children. Perhaps something else was going on. Something unspoken.
Before Rob went to see Marie he decided to find out what he could about her husband. He’d heard rumors about the man’s reclusive nature — he’d never even been to Creekside as far as he knew. And that was when Rob really got concerned.
The men he talked to at the post office where Jason worked were less than complimentary about him. According to them he was surly, short-tempered, uncivil, and gruff. He rebuffed any attempt to engage him in conversation. Numerous times he seemed about to explode in anger, usually over the most trivial matters. Once he got into an argument with someone on the phone, a conversation that left him red-faced with rage. It turned out that only the month before — three months after Marie had left — Jason had turned in his resignation. Everyone had been quite relieved on that day.
“No, I don’t mind talking to you about Jason now that he has left,” his boss said. “He was a hard worker, but a real weirdo. I asked him once about his family. Boy, was that a mistake! He glared at me as if to say: ‘Mind your own business.’ But of course he said nothing. He rarely spoke at all. I had the feeling he harbored some dark secret. Something that hurt to talk about.”
The Lewds lived in a white two-story house on a tree-lined street in Squirrel Hill. There were two silver elm trees in the front yard and several rhododendron bushes with lavender blossoms. Out back was a flower garden that contained red and yellow roses, daffodils, zinnias, and a variety of herbs.
Jason’s neighbors echoed his co-worker’s opinion. He never said hello, would merely shrug if spoken to. Marie worked in the yard most evenings and loved to engage in conversation with passersby. When asked about her husband, however, she said little more than: “He’s busy at work.”
Rob suspected Marie left Creekside because something had happened between her and her husband. There was something she let slip once: Sometimes the people you think you know best you really know the least. She had been talking about another teacher but — was it the wistful look in her eyes? — Rob had the feeling she was referring to someone much closer.
So it was with great trepidation that he walked up the steps to the front door and pressed the doorbell. The door swung open, creaking like a coffin lid, and a man poked his head out. He looked to be in his late thirties, had curly light-brown hair, blue eyes, bushy eyebrows.
Rob explained the purpose of his visit.
“You that Rob fellow?”
The man smiled. “Come on in.”
Copyright © 2012 by Brian Biswas