Wert Riot

| April 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

BirdWert Riot

by Luke Salisbury

 

© Copyright 1991

by Luke Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

 

Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker Jr. was a small man who had only one lung.  The boys at the Hun school of Princeton thought his prematurely gray hair, sharp nose and furtive eyes resembled a rodent.  Mr. Wertenbaker was known as “T.J. Mouse,” “Wert,” and “One lung.”  Despite having lost a lung to cancer and suffering from emphysema, he smoked constantly, and had once been seen after class smoking two cigarettes at the same time.  His classes were frequently interrupted by bouts of coughing.  In Jack Arnold’s senior year, two juniors bet whether Mr. Wertenbaker would live until graduation.  He was thirty-seven years old.

Mr. Wertenbaker had an odd habit.  He never looked anyone in the eye.  This meant he taught English looking at the ceiling, out the window, or with is furtive—indeed, mouse like gaze, flitting from one young man to another.  The boys used to wonder if MR. Wertenbaker looked at his wife and children in the eye at moments of intimacy.  His two small sons looked exactly like him, which to wits in Jack’s class, was a mark of fate worthy of Hawthorne.

The “Wert” wasn’t the only master with a nickname.  There was “the Capon,” “Jerry the Jap,” “Two Face,” “Suave Sid,” “Flip,” “Winky,” and “Coach Bob,” A Presbyterian minister who tried to convert Jewish boys.

No one at Hun, not even Mr. Wertenbaker, was treated like Jack Arnold.  On the day of the “Wert” riot, Jack was in his last semester.  Time passed slowly at Hun.  A year felt like a generation and all four like a lifetime.  Jack’s tenure was an eternity.  He had been caught masturbating twice during his freshman year and had been called “Jack the Beater” ever since.

Study Hall was the “Beater’s” particular purgatory.  One master patrolled sixty desks and if he turned his back or stepped out, the room would explode with squeals of “Beater!”  “Beater!” “Beater!” and the boys would rub their shoes on the floor and slap their desks.  The noise would cease the moment the master returned or turned around.  Jack used to sit hunched over his books and pretend he didn’t notice.  He wasn’t stupid.  Jack was good at math, (“All that practice on the slide rule”), and not bad at sports.  He rowed number two on the varsity eight, but this made no difference.  If he solved a difficult chemistry problem, or rowed a good race, (“Pulled”), he was still the “Beater.”

In the spring a bird used to perch outside the study hall window and make a rapid, high-pitched sound which the collective ear interpreted as “Beater!  Beater!  Beater!”  The bird was dubbed the “Beaterbird.”  In the study hall when this shrill cry came through the window, a classmate leaned over to Jack and said, “Even birds know.”

One chilly day in March word spread that there was going to be a “Wert” riot.  At exactly twelve midnight everyone was supposed to yell “Wert!” at the top of his lungs, and throw coins out the windows.  The school was very excited.  Massive, unscheduled disrespect was no small victory.

The Dean, “Twoface,” announced that anyone yelling “‘Wert,’ or anything else,” would be expelled.  He made a point of telling this to Jack Arnold.  “Think of Mr. Wertenbaker’s feelings,” said “Twoface.”

All afternoon students winked and snickered.  The masters watched closely and made threats.  At dinner, students were officiously polite and masters edgy.  Mr. Wertenbaker was nervous, but he was always nervous.  He ate with his head down looking rapidly from side to side, and then left quickly after the meal, not stopping to drink coffee or talk in the lounge.

Evening study hall ended at ten.  A proctor appeared at Jack Arnold’s door and told him Mr. Wertenbaker wanted to see him.  Jack was irritated.  As much as he cherished a reputation for N.A.,” “negative attitude,” and, in fact, was rumored to be the boy who was going to climb on the roof of the new dorm and yell, “Wert!”, he didn’t like being singled out.  Jack lived on the second floor of the old building, a Gothic affair with turrets, irregular corridors, and rooms tucked under eaves.  Russell Hall had been the main house of the Russell Estate, and Jack preferred its idiosyncrasies to the symmetrical sterility of the new dorm, a modern building attached to the dining hall.  Russell Hall looked like Princeton University while the new dorm looked like the Princeton Shopping Center.  The old building was connected to the days of John Hun, who’d founded a tutoring school to prepare boys for the University, and who tutored F. Scott Fitzgerald and several generations of Princeton football players.  Mr. Wertenbaker, whose father taught history at the University, told Jack this.

Mr. Wertenbaker lived in the new dorm on the second floor.  He was the only master who had an office outside his apartment.  A single room next to his living quarters had been converted to a study.  The office was sparse.  A bookcase held works by Dante, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and the New Critics.  Most of his books were paperback and the walls had no pictures.  The bulletin board continued only a calendar and course outlines for his classes.  Jack sat in a folding chair, borrowed from the cafeteria.  Mr. Wertenbaker turned on a swivel chair at the desk.  He was working on a genealogy of The Bear.  It later appeared in a book entitled God, Man, and The Bear, and was precisely a genealogy.  After untangling the family lines of McCaslins, Beauchamps, Fathers, Despains, and Hoggenbecks, Mr. Wertenbaker published it sans text.

“Thank you for coming, Jack.  I know you must be busy.  Everyone, is, is, busy,” Wertenbaker eyes landed quickly on Jack, “tonight.”

“I haven’t done anything.”  Jack knew how weak this sounded.  No one had done anything, yet.  That was the point.  That was why he was here, he assumed.  Jack felt so guilty he couldn’t look at Mr. Wertenbaker.  The room seemed bright as a cell lit by a naked bulb.  Jack was angry.  He didn’t mind being punished.  He wouldn’t have objected to being thrown out, but he didn’t like being interrogated before he’d done anything.  “Is there something you want to say, sir?”

“Jack.”  Mr. Wertenbaker’s hands were folded in his lap and his legs were crossed at the knee, like a woman.  The boys never sat that way.  “Jack,” Mr. Wertenbaker’s tone irritate Jack.  There was suffering in it, something like begging.  Jack decided he would yell, “Wert!” that night if he had to do it in this room.

“Jack, this will all be over in a few months.  You’ll never have to see any of us again.  If you don’t want to, I mean.”

“You think I’ll come back?”

“No, I don’t suppose you will.”

Jack Arnold looked up and saw Wertenbaker was looking him in the eye.  Jack was so startled he looked at the ceiling.

“It’s harder here for some of us than others.  I… I’ve grown to like it.”

Jack looked Wertenbaker in the eye and said, “Sir?”  The master kept looking at Jack but his eyes twitched with the strain.

“Why don’t you leave, Mr. Wertenbaker?  You could teach somewhere else.  Maybe out west?”

“This is my home.”

Jack looked sharply at Wertenbaker, who looked down.

“I just want you to know that anything you do, anything you feel you have to do, won’t,” Mr. Wertenbaker caught Jack’s eye for a moment, “hurt me.”

“I understand,” Jack said harshly, and got up.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” said Wertenbaker.

 

There was a lot of talk about Mr. Wertenbaker that night.  Some of the boys thought he didn’t deserve a Wert riot.  There were teachers who were mean, like “Coach Bob,” but Mr. Wertenbaker wasn’t mean.  There were men like “the Capon,” who were happy at boarding school and exuded a bitchy camaraderie, but Mr. Wertenbaker wasn’t happy.  There were pompous fools like “Winky, “and “Flip,” peevish bachelors like “Twoface” for whom the word “fairy” was invented, and there was the whole tribe of enthusiastic neophytes from the Princeton Theological Seminary who filled vacancies during the year, but Mr. Wertenbaker wasn’t like any of them.  He wasn’t mean but he wasn’t liked.

At midnight, Jack Arnold, yelled, “Wert!” from the roof of the old dorm louder than seemed humanly possible.  First one dorm, and then the other, exploded in a cacophony of squawked and howled “Wert!”s.  Some boys shouted “Wert!” as loud as they could.  Others shouted “Wert!  Wert!  Wert!” in succession the way they yelled “Beater!” in study hall.  A few ground the word into two or three syllables.  “Werrt!”  Werrrrt!”  “Werrerrerrt!”  “Werrerrerrerrrt!”

The night exploded.  Windows were raised and slammed.  Boys pounded panes and walls.  They beat their penny loafers on desks and hit the floors with tennis and dress shoes.  Coins rained down like hail, pelting windows, sills, walls, and walkways.  Two brothers, who lived next to Jack, wore pajamas, and still said their prayers, jumped on their beds.  Down the hall an Argentinean let loose guttural howls someone later said, “Could have frightened gauchos.”  Two sophomores beat their walls with lacrosse sticks.  The next day their posters of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were in tatters.  Seniors wearing college sweatshirts yelled with all the anger of weekends spent at Hun.  Freshman who cried in their pillows in September slammed doors.  Boys who’d had their table manner corrected by “Flip” or “Twoface” threw rolls of toilet paper out upper windows.

The full blast lasted five minutes.  Jack got into his room as the last few “Wert!”s echoed through the night.  He saw the yellow square of Mr. Wertenbaker’s window turn black. He imagined “T.J.” running down the halls, or trying to explain to his wife, or taking his children away, but apparently Mr. Wertenbaker stayed in his office, waited for the noise, and left.

In another five minutes the shouting became sporadic.  The last few “Wert!”s  were oddly mournful.

The next morning at breakfast everyone knew Jack Arnold had climbed on the roof, yelled “Wert!” and somehow got back to his room without being caught.  Jack was at the head of the line.  He smiled as he waited for the day’s watery eggs, thin bacon, and soggy toast.  He was uncharacteristically pleased with himself until a sleepy classmate said, “Move it, Beater,” and two freshmen, safely back in line, said, “Beater!”  Beater!”

 

 

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Category: Short Stories

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