A Planned Intervention
by Morris Marshall
I looked up, then continued cramming my briefcase with exam papers — my work for the weekend. Pushing down on the case, I tugged at the zipper, but it would only close halfway.
“Mr. Samuels!” Sally Ferguson stood at the entrance to the third-floor teacher’s prep room, beads of perspiration dotting her forehead. She steadied herself against both sides of the wooden doorframe.
“Can it wait until Monday?” I asked, thinking back to last fall when she’d scored an 85 on my Business Concepts final, then promptly visited the Dean to request a re-mark. The year before, she’d petitioned (unsuccessfully) to ban pop machines from the college cafeteria in favor of healthier beverage choices.
“My boyfriend’s...” Sally pointed in the air until she could catch her breath.
“I’m late for a doctor’s appointment,” I said, glancing past the photocopier toward the coat rack where my hooded parka waited.
“My boyfriend’s on the roof, sir.”
Sally nodded. “He’s threatening to jump. Says he won’t talk to anyone but you.”
I sprinted down the hall to the elevator, and jabbed the “up” button. I pressed it again, tapping my foot as the yellow light moved from left to right across the numbers above the doors. I looked down at the floor painting of “Baldy the Bald Eagle,” Apex College’s smiling mascot. He doesn’t have much to smile about now, I thought. Our basketball team lost its fifth game in a row last night and — worse — Brent is in trouble.
When the elevator doors finally opened, Glenda Hansen, a math professor, peered out. “Oh my God, Chris, did you hear the news?” Her eyes were glassy and the blood had drained from her face.
“I just heard.”
“I can’t believe it,” Glenda said. The doors closed and a computerized voice said, “Third floor, going up!”
“How do you know Brent?” I asked as the elevator rose.
Glenda tied her brown hair back in a ponytail. She reached down and fumbled with her glasses on a gold chain around her neck. “He’s in my first period calculus class. A good student, a little quiet but—”
“I should have suspected something, Glenda. Brent started out getting eighties in my Business class last term, but failed the last two tests. Classic sign of—”
“You can’t blame yourself, Chris. We have too many students to pay close attention to each one.”
I shook my head. “I still can’t believe I missed the indicators.”
The doors opened on the seventh floor, revealing a flurry of activity. Students and professors gathered in small groups, speaking in hushed tones as they stared out at the roof. They parted as Mr. Kaplan, Chair of the Business Department, came through. He rushed toward me, red-faced, gasping for air like a beached fish. “Chris, thank God you’re here. Brent’s been asking for you.”
“Where is he?”
“On the ledge surrounding the balcony,” Kaplan whispered, looking outside. “The police are on their way. Nothing like this has ever happened at the college.” He removed a red handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped his forehead and neck.
Last August, the roof balcony had overflowed with students eating a barbecue lunch, laughing and enjoying a rock band at a student orientation party. Applause had erupted as Mr. Kaplan announced a local bank’s $100,000 contribution to the college. Now, seven months later, a blanket of fresh snow covered the vacant benches and picnic tables. Wind turned the snow into swirling white eddies that formed and broke apart just as quickly.
“You’ll be fine, Chris,” Glenda said, touching my shoulder. “Just be yourself. If I needed to talk to someone, I’d rather it be you.”
I forced a smile. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Groups of students huddled together near the college entrance. Sally Ferguson stood among them, her hands clamped over her mouth. I stepped outside and followed a single set of footsteps through the snow to the edge of the balcony.
God, please help me to say the right things, I prayed.
Brent sat on a narrow ledge about four feet above the ground with his legs dangling over the side, running shoes unlaced. His shoulders were slumped forward as he stared down at the street.
“Hey, would you like some company?”
He turned and nodded. His eyes resembled those of a scolded dog. His black, red-tinted hair cascaded down to just above his eyes in a hairstyle reminiscent of “Sport,” a sheepdog I’d once owned.
I approached the ledge slowly and peered over the side. Seven floors of air separated Brent from the concrete sidewalk. Mr. Tam, my grade eleven physics teacher, had once commented that an apple dropped from this height would hit the ground in about two seconds. I could still see him at the blackboard writing down the equations. His words resonated through my mind: All objects fall at the same acceleration due to gravity. That means they hit the ground at the same time.
The smell of exhaust fumes wafted up from below. As word of the emergency spread, faces appeared in the windows of the office building across the street. I wanted to shout at the onlookers — voyeurs — to get back to work, but instead looked down at the growing mass of people congregating in front of the college. Above the dull roar of traffic, I thought I heard someone yell, “Jump!”
“I’m coming out, Brent, okay?” Don’t look down, my mind commanded. This is just like climbing a roof. You used to retrieve tennis balls from the school roof back in junior high, remember? Piece of cake.
Staring straight ahead, I grabbed the ledge and raised myself up, wincing as my elbows cracked and ice granules stabbed my palms. Pain coursed up my arms like an electrical current. After several minutes, I balanced my behind on the ledge and sidled leftward toward Brent.
“Don’t come any closer, sir,” he said, holding out his hands.
“Okay. Would you like to talk?”
Brent looked down. “I don’t feel like it.” His blue sweatshirt barely looked warm enough for a cool fall morning, let alone a frosty winter afternoon. I reached behind my head to put up my hood and realized with horror that my parka was still hanging in the teachers’ prep room.
The faint cry of sirens sounded in the distance and stopped a few seconds later. Gusts of wind flapped through my hair and sliced at my face like frosty daggers. He’s so close, I thought, squinting to protect my eyes. You could just reach out and grab him and it would all be over. Don’t lean too far forward, now. One heavy cross wind and you’ll both be road kill.
“I didn’t plan for things to end this way,” Brent said.
“Would you like to talk?” I asked again.
“It could take a while.” A silver stud peeked out from above his right eyebrow and a green and red dragon tattoo covered the right side of his neck.
“I’m in no hurry.” My cell phone chimed out the song “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban. It rang twice before I could fish it out of my pocket and put it on “vibrate.”
“Aren’t you going to get it, Mr. Samuels?”
I smiled. “It’s probably a telemarketer. They’re always calling me at the wrong times.”
“I was at my psychiatrist’s this morning,” Brent began, his gaze fixed on me for the first time.
“Oh yeah?” Vehicle doors slammed at street level. Firefighters began assembling a large brown tarpaulin.
“A couple of months ago, I had so much energy,” Brent said. “I only needed a few hours of sleep a night and I could run off an essay in no time. Lately, though, I haven’t felt well. Trouble sleeping, eating, low energy and difficulty concentrating. I can’t focus on anything.”
I nodded. He’d lost weight since taking my Introduction to Business Concepts class last fall. We’d chatted a few times — weather, ’80s music, the stock market — and just last week I’d seen him in the hallway holding hands with Sally.
“I’ve just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” Brent said, swinging his legs back and forth against the ledge.
“I told my girlfriend during the lunch hour. She thinks I’m psycho, Mr. Samuels. She never wants to see me again.”
“That’s not true, Brent. I just talked to Sally. She cares about you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“She told me,” I insisted. “She said she couldn’t bear the thought of losing you.”
“My brother killed himself when I was eight years old,” Brent said. “Gunshot to the head. I guess it runs in the family.”
I wanted to console him with a friendly pat on the shoulder, but feared losing my balance on the icy ledge or, worse, startling him and driving him over the side. Nearby, a black crow soared through the steel-grey sky, seemingly waiting for a conclusion to the event. I glanced across the roof at Mr. Kaplan. He’d taken out his handkerchief again.
Brent shook his head. “My mom never recovered from what happened to my brother. She’s been in and out of psychiatric hospitals ever since. My dad’s an alcoholic. What hope is there for me?”
“Brent, don’t say that. I know things will get better.”
“How do you know?” He squirmed and his right running shoe slipped off, flipping end over end as it toppled to the sidewalk. The crow circled directly above us.
“Do you mind if I share something personal with you, Brent? No one here at school knows about this. None of the teachers, students, not even Mr. Kaplan.”
Be careful what you say, a raspy voice piped up in my mind. If you tell him your secret, Mr. Kaplan will find out. So will Glenda Hansen, your colleagues and students. They’ll talk about you behind your back. You’ll lose your job. Just wait.
Who cares what they think? said another, softer voice. All that matters now is getting Brent off this ledge. It was as if two opposing characters sat on each of my shoulders, an angel with a halo on the right and a devil with a pitchfork on the left.
“What did you want to share?” Brent asked.
My heart pounded. “The symptoms you were describing, I’ve experienced them, too. I still experience them when I go off my medication.”
Brent stared at me as a biologist might admire an exotic animal. “You... you’re bipolar?”
I smiled. “I’m not ashamed to talk about it. I know things seem rough for you right now but they’ll get better.”
“I wish I could believe that, Mr. Samuels.”
“I went through a long period of depression the summer I turned twenty-two,” I said. “My girlfriend had broken up with me and I thought the world was going to end. One day, when my dad was up north at the cottage, I broke into his gun cabinet and took out one of his hunting rifles. I knew where he stored the bullets.”
Brent’s eyes widened.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” I continued. “For five hours, I sat on my bed thinking... wishing I could get up enough courage to shoot myself. I felt empty and just didn’t want to feel that way anymore.”
“I know the feeling,” Brent said, pushing his hair out of his eyes.
“Somehow — to this day I can’t explain it — the gun went off. The bullet blew a hole right through my bedroom wall. It penetrated the wall of my neighbor’s house and settled on her staircase. I could have killed her. If that bullet had hit me, it would have ripped me apart.”
A sudden gust of wind knocked me off balance. Brent grabbed my shirt collar. I groped for the ledge for what seemed like hours before re-establishing my grip. My dress shirt was drenched and a burning, tingling sensation nibbled at my hands.
“Are you okay, Mr. Samuels?”
I straightened up and wiped ice particles from my shirt. “I’m fine. Can I ask you something?”
“Of all the professors in the college, why did you ask to talk to me? I mean, I’m glad you did, but why me?”
“Well... when I was in your Business class last term, my Dad got drunk and locked me out of the house the night before an exam. I came to you the next morning and explained what happened. You let me write the exam at a later date. No one ever gave me a break like that before.”
“It’s amazing, Brent. I’m never here on Fridays. The only reason I came today is that a student wanted to write a make-up exam. That student never showed up. I was mad at first, but—”
“I’m glad you were here.” Brent smiled and shifted closer to me.
“Me, too. You know, after that gun incident, I ended up in jail for a few days.”
Brent chuckled softly. “You don’t seem like the hardened criminal type.”
“Because of my small size, the guards placed me in solitary confinement to protect me from the other inmates. A Salvation Army pastor prayed with me and gave me a Bible. The next year, with God’s help, I went back to school and finished my Masters in Business. I’ve been teaching here at the college ever since.”
“Things really worked out for you, Mr. Samuels, but—”
“They can for you, too,” I assured him, holding out my hand. “Do you trust me enough to let me help you off this ledge?”
He raised his hand, hesitated and put it down. “I want to...“
“When this is over, Brent, you can call me anytime or come see me. With God’s help, we’ll get through this together.”
Brent looked down at the fire trucks and police cars, then back at me. He reached out and clasped my hand. We jumped off the ledge back onto the student balcony. As my feet struck the ground, I wobbled, almost collapsing at the thought of what could have transpired.
With Brent safe, my attention turned to my hands. I hadn’t seen skin that white since walking home from elementary school one January evening without a hat. As I’d warmed up with a cup of hot chocolate, the numbness in my ears relented to the sharp stabbing pain of hot needles. My parents came running when they heard my screams. Dad always warned that frostbite would make my ears flop over permanently, but they never did.
“Look at all those people,” Brent said as we stumbled back into the college.
“They care about you,” I replied, wrapping my left arm around his shoulder. “We all do.” Outside the sun had burned through the clouds, reflecting off the snow, casting long shadows behind the onlookers on the roof.
Sally Ferguson rushed toward us, smiling, tears streaming down her face. She wrapped her arms around Brent’s neck and kissed him on the lips. Congratulatory hands clapped against my shoulders. A chorus of voices said, “Good job, Chris!” I steered Brent away from the crowd toward the protection of the elevator, but not fast enough.
“Thank God it’s over,” said a deep familiar voice. “I almost had to cancel an exam because of this.” The voice originated behind me and belonged to one of my doctorate colleagues who always seemed to “have it together.”
I turned and looked at him, started to say something, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. How do you feel,’ I thought, ‘when you stare out at the fresh, eager faces sizing you up on the first day of class? Do your palms sweat? Does your heart leap into your throat? Are you distracted from your lecture by the persistent thought that one of your students might sense that you’re different?;
“Chris!” Mr. Kaplan, still red-faced and puffing, approached the elevator. He smiled at Brent and pulled me aside. “How did you get him down?” he whispered. “What did you say?”
Before I could respond, the familiar sting of frostbite penetrated my fingertips and radiated through my hands. Instead of screaming, I glanced at Brent and smiled. When he reciprocated, any lingering doubts about revealing my long-held secret melted like snow during a spring thaw.
Copyright © 2012 by Morris Marshall