Nine years after he was a student in my fourth-grade class, Zach Nowak threw a brick off an I-75 overpass. It smashed straight through the windshield of a white Subaru into the driver’s face. She lived long enough to be brought to the hospital where my ex-sister-in-law was a nurse. I’d been divorced for almost five years, but Helen had stayed closer to me than to her brother. “He was a jerk,” she’d say. “The new one’s dumb as a box of rocks. Even he knows he made a mistake.” I was skeptical on that count—he’d never tried to come back to me, or even apologize. But I appreciated Helen’s lie.
We met up for dinner every few weeks, mostly at The Thirsty Sturgeon, the only restaurant worth eating at anywhere near Walleye Lake. No one lived here for the food. Or the walleye, really. Or the sturgeon. Mostly, we lived here because we’d always lived here, in the forested swath of north-central Michigan that everyone else drove straight through on I-75. The family in the Subaru had been pressing north, planning to stay overnight in Mackinaw City and take the first ferry over to the island to do the usual: horse-drawn carriages and bike rentals and fudge. The brick came down at 9:30 p.m., just after sunset.
Our first dinner together, after the brick, I thought Helen was bringing it up the way any of us in town might: a terrible thing had happened in a very small place, and we worried at it like a rash, the scratch of “what was he thinking?” and “that poor family.” I hadn’t realized that Helen had been working in the ER when the family was brought in. “We’re not an official trauma center,” she said. “We’re not supposed to see things like that.”
After we ordered, she told me just a little of what she’d seen, how the husband, who’d been in the front passenger seat, had had pieces of his wife’s face on his clothes. Their kids had been strapped in the backseat, unharmed except for what they’d seen. I understood that she wasn’t saying any of it to horrify me, or impress me, but because she needed to say it to someone.
When the server came with our food she ordered two whiskey sours, both for her, although she usually nursed one beer all evening. “Was he in your class ever?” she asked me, doing the math. Zach Nowak was eighteen, barely, when he threw the brick. I’d been teaching at Walleye Lake’s only elementary school for fifteen years.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What was he like? If you remember.”
“I remember.” He seemed like the kind of kid who might someday throw a brick off an overpass, is what he seemed like. But I didn’t know how to say that without sounding either flippant, or as if I should have done something to stop him.
I was sure we all remembered him, every single person who’d ever been in a classroom with Zach Nowak. But we’d also known crooked kids who turned into straight arrows, or at least into adults who held down a job, went home and watched TV, and didn’t make trouble for anyone else. We’d known sweet kids who went the other way. Life is long and strange and none of us sees what God does.
This is an excerpt. You can read the full text of Caitlin Horrock’s “Teacher” in the print edition of The Arkansas International 6.
Caitlin Horrocks is author of the novel The Vexations and the story collection This Is Not Your City. Her stories appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. She teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.