© Copyright 2019 by Don Shook
A .22 caliber revolver pointed two feet from my forehead was no way to greet that beautiful autumn morning. Were it on stage or another "let's pretend" scenario I could have understood. But this, I assumed, was of dead earnest intent by one of my high-school students whose demeanor defied any semblance of normalcy. With his fat finger on the trigger and a surly grin on his face, he stood above my desk threatening to be my last sight on earth. In my previous teaching jobs I thought I had experienced surprising events; but none even started to compare.
I first met William Earnest Price a week earlier. He had missed the first two weeks of class and I was well into my opening lecture when the door burst open and he appeared. I had been appraised of his history. At five-foot-eight and two hundred pounds, Bill Price was viewed as a potentially dangerous hulk. You see, the weight was not muscle, but rather tightly bunched- around the middle and upper-torso adipose. He was fat. He was also fearsome. Many of his other teachers had attested to the intimidation they felt around him. Two years in the navy, after dropping out of high school, had not diminished his sour disposition nor defiant attitude. He always seemed a threat. And there he stood.
"Yes?" I asked, intrigued and pretending innocence.
"This Speech?" he challenged in a very adult voice.
"You the Teach ?" he responded.
"Mr. Teach, " I growled, attempting to counter his menacing manner, then continuing, "And I assume you're Bill Price."
"Yeah," he snarled, "where ya want me?"
"Take the empty desk at the back." I answered.
He smirked, surveying the other students while saying, "Back? I thought that's where the niggers sat." Amid a class murmur and a laugh or two, he smirked again and sauntered to the desk, moving like a toxic slug. I remained quiet and continued my lecture. A week later the gun incident occurred.
Although professional education administrators advise otherwise, the best teachers frequently deviate from their class syllabus, especially with subjects such as theatre. You simply have to be flexible. In a field of give and take, imagination and emotional response are simply not predictable nor calculated...you must go with the flow. Even at my then age of twenty-four, I was aware of this. I considered myself one of the "best." Still do. Consequently, on Friday I departed from the scheduled "cold readings" class and assigned original monologues for the following Monday's session. Each student was to present something "original and creative." This included Bill Price.
Up until that point, he had presented no problems. Each class day he usually morphed into the room a few minutes after the bell, took his back seat and sat static for the remainder of class. I never called on him and attempted to ignore his glowering glances and subdued snarls. Except for an occasional unsettling sigh or a shifting of bulk in his seat, he had become a classroom non-factor. After announcing the Monday monologue assignment, I regretted not talking to him personally about it, but discounted the thought and decided to enjoy the weekend.
On Monday the moment of truth arrived. It was original monologue time. One by one my mixed class of girls and guys, sophomores and seniors, good and bad would-be actors all trudged to the front of the room and presented their materials. It was revealing: Some showing possibilities. Others, hopelessly sinking in unfamiliar depths. Then, as later and now, it generally took less than a few seconds into their monologues for me to ascertain who had promise or had worked hard preparing.
The presentations varied. Some were humorous, some were banal, some displayed real possibilities. Finally, toward the end of the class period, all monologues had been presented except that of Bill Price. When I called his name the class became strangely silent. The air became electric with tension filled anticipation. Did he actually have a monologue prepared and, if so, would he actually present it? What if he didn't? What would I do? Collective breaths were held.
The metal caps on the bottom of the chair legs squeaked against the highly-polished tile floor as Bill struggled out of his seat and began walking toward the front of the room. A too-tight flowered shirt, too-loose bluejeans, and a hand-held brown backpack too obvious to miss accompanied him in my direction. When he reached my desk he flung the backpack on top of it, turned and faced the others.
Clearing his throat, Bill grinned deviously before saying, "My fellow fascists. Welcome to the truth. Life is the shits! Motherfuckin' perverts roam our halls and contaminate the very essence of,,,"
"That's enough!" I interrupted, aware of an embarrassed astonishment sweeping through the room. Heads bowed, eyes bulged, and gasps echoed against my rising and repeating, "That's enough!" As if unhearing, Bill continued with a scatological tirade gaining in volume and pace..."Bill, that's enough. You may be seated!" There was now a general uproar in the room, so he either didn't hear me or ignored me as his obscene delivery continued. Finally, I shouted loudly enough to be heard in the principal's office across the plaza, "Damnit, I said that's enough!"
Astonishingly, he stopped. "Thank you." I said on a long, slow breath. The room settled as I followed suit, sitting back down behind my desk. I was furious, but decided not to let it show and, since it was practically time for the bell, to discuss it with Bill after class. As if reading my mind, he turned and plodded over to me.
Standing defensively between me and the rest of the class, he picked up his backpack. "You didn't like my monologue?" he asked, almost amiably.
"What? I responded somewhat bewildered.
As he reached into the backpack, he suddenly shouted, "You didn't like it because you didn't let me finish!" and withdrew the pistol, dropped the backpack, and leveled the gun at my head.
I had been told before that there are times just before death when a person's entire life flashes before their eyes. At that time, for me, nothing flashed, nothing moved, nothing was the extent of it. I was paralyzed, except for a heart pounding in my throat.
Still, his devilish grin widened, his pig-like eyes literally glowered with menace as I fought to maintain control, desperately wanting to turn and run. Seeing the fear I must have displayed, he simply held his gaze and thrust the gun closer...surely this was not happening...wait, I suddenly noticed his hand was shaking, his eyes watering. A certain realization dawned. He was not the impenetrable maniac I'd suspected. Things were clearer...William Earnest Price had lost his smirk...and I knew I had him. He was nothing but a bully, and a confused, frightened bully at that.
From some deep recess of my being, a modicum of courage arose. I heard myself say, "Put the gun down, Bill." He hesitated. And I knew he'd abandoned moxie. "I said," repeating with firm resolve as I reached forward and clutched the pistol barrel in my hand, "put the damn gun down." Now there was spite in my voice, menace in my gaze. He melted, yielding the entire gun to my grip while lowering his eyes and backing up a step or two. The teacher was back. The student failed. Universal order was restored.
That was the last time Bill Price attended my class or, for that matter, any other class; he was kicked out of school. However, largely on my recommendation, no charges were filed, but a restraining order against his appearance at the school was filed. The rest of the school year passed uneventfully, my class recovered, and hot Texas summer arrived. My new wife and I decided to give the Great White Way a shot, and so laid out plans on moving to New York. I resigned my teaching position.
A week or so before our departure, in the middle of one of those scorching seasonal days, I stopped at a local Dairy Queen to quench my craving for a strawberry milkshake. After ordering, I sat down in a booth with a huge shake, relishing the deliciously cold treat. Suddenly Bill Price entered, spotted me and bee-lined in my direction. Automatically, again my heart leaped into my throat.
"Bill." I said, tentatively.
"That looks good." he responded, plopping down across from me.
"Want one?" I asked without thinking.
"Naw, man." he sneered, again glaring at me with those piercing, piggish eyes.
"How you doin' ?" I asked.
He mumbled something unintelligible and for the next few minutes or so we talked. I related our New York plans and he abruptly rose, grinned, and walked out.
I sighed as I watched him leave, relieved that our meeting had ended so quickly. The bully still exuded some sinister sense of dread.
A few months later, after my wife and I were well settled into our Manhattan routines, I received an envelope in the mail. It was addressed to "An Airbubble Begat By a Milkshake" with no return address. I tore it open and discovered several blank pages and one with some illegible scribbling. The crude, irregular handwriting reminded me of a similar madman penmanship I'd once seen in a psychology magazine. Although I had no proof, something told me only one person could have sent it. I felt a brief chill. I shuddered, wondering if this was the end or only another beginning of my relationship with Bill Price, and that only he could explain the arcane message on the envelope.
Twenty years passed. New York had been enlightening, but we missed the friendly Texas open-air and so returned. Various theatre, teaching, and broadcasting positions led to a divorce and my settling in an apartment with a rather interesting but, to me, routine life style. One day the phone rang and a strange voice on the other end of the line said, "Mr. Teach. This is Bill Price."
"Well," I said, trying to calmly assuage my state of shock. "How are you, Bill?"
"I just wanted to thank you."
"Oh," I hesitated, " for what?"
"For standing up to me that day in class."
"My God," I thought, "some miracles just take time."
"Yeah. It turned my life around. We, er...a...I have a family now...live in Midland and I have a good job at a bank."
"That's wonderful, Bill." I proclaimed, trying to seem impressed.
"Yeah, I don't know what would have happened if I'd shot you."
"I do," I joked, "I'd be dead and you'd be in prison."
We both laughed lightly and then he thanked me again and, after some uneasy small talk, we hung up.
That was over twenty years ago and I haven't heard from him since. However, when I think of William Earnest Price, which is seldom, I also like to picture him, his wife and kids, living safe and secure pursuing the American Dream. I also think of how glad I am he didn't pull the trigger that day.
Oh, one other thing: I also like to think that the incident helped turn my life around too. The experience taught me that life is sweet and fragile, and that its tentative nature should persuade all that it's also very precious. I found a hidden courage that day. It sustained me then as it does today whenever things just aren't going so well. Thank you, Bill Price. The Airbubble has spoken.