The Substitute

I had been unemployed for a few months and my older sister told me to take some menial position minimum wage job somewhere just to get my foot in the door but I was too proud to start over at the bottom. I had served my country, advanced through the ranks, performed important and serious assignments, earned achievements and awards, and then worked ten years for a small business after my military retirement. I was nearly fifty years old and I couldn't bring myself to mop floors or be the head fryer at McDonald's. Maybe that was conceited and egotistical on my part but that's just the way I felt.

I was becoming increasingly discouraged with each new rejection letter received and every interview I endured. I could tell as soon as I sat down that I wasn't getting the job but I kept persevering, convinced that something would give eventually.

My kid sister's unemployed friend told me that she substitute taught for some easy quick money and to get out of the house on occasion. She said it was an easy 70 bucks a day and I figured a stint like that would give me a break from the daily grind of looking for a job. I met with the substitute coordinator in the school administrative office located in the old junior high building, filled out the background check paperwork, got a quick briefing on expectations and responsibilities, and added my name to the substitute teacher's list.

I signed up for junior high and high school only (I was afraid I might intimidate the elementary school kids) and the deal was easy - the phone rang either late at night or early the next morning and I could take the position or pass for that day if I had something else more important planned or just didn't want the assignment.

The phone didn't ring for weeks but when Betty the Substitute Coordinator called for the first time I have to admit I felt nervous. What did I know about substitute teaching? Sure I had been a trainer and presenter in the Navy and I knew how to speak in front of a room full of people and I had enough leadership experience to order kids around if I had to but what if I screwed up by saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing?

It also struck me as ironic that I was going back to high school which hadn't exactly been the happiest time of my life. My mother had been sick for most of my childhood and she died of complications from multiple sclerosis early in my freshman year of high school. My father, already burnt out and drinking too much because of my mother's illness, was mostly absent after her passing so my two sisters and I were pretty much on our own. I had friends but I was going through the motions and not the most social person. I was haunted by my family secrets - an ill mother unable to do normal mom stuff and a father victimized by his dependency on the bottle. I didn't want anybody to know about that stuff so I rarely talked about myself and I avoided situations where others might ask about my family.

I hadn't been back to Hillsboro High since I graduated thirty years earlier. The building had undergone a face lift and even some restructuring and it felt surreal being back in the school again almost as if I had never been inside it before. Most of the teachers and facility from my era had moved on, retired or even died but there were still a few familiar faces and names around that I noticed the first few times I filled in.

I wondered if my all time favorite teacher Ms. Dawson was still a member of the faculty but I didn't want to ask for fear of looking stupid. She was young back then and she'd 'only' be in her mid fifties now but thirty years was a long time to stay at any one place and I was pretty sure she had gone on to bigger and better things with her life.

It took me a few substituting stints to get used to the gig. I rarely taught a lesson. Most teachers left notes to give the class a study hall or work on a particular project, perhaps show a movie. I was basically a babysitter and prison guard. I was also an easy mark as kids loved to see how far they could push the fill in guy, purposely breaking rules and testing limits to see if I'd lose my cool or go psycho.

The more often I substituted the more cynical and defeated I became. Subbing at the high school wasn't so bad although there was plenty of indifference and attitude but the junior high on the other side of the building was the real eye opener with hormone-challenged immature kids acting out every chance they got. I really couldn't blame them - it's a difficult age with a lot of pressure and trying to fit in but as a group the young teens could test my patience and I had to discipline myself not to lose my temper no matter how often I was tempted.

One day, a fourteen year old eighth grade girl did all she could to be a snotty brat playing the drama queen to the hilt and disrupting the class at every opportunity. I tried to be nice, I offered what I thought was some helpful advice, and then I simply ignored her which got her even more jacked up. When I was leaving the school at the end of the day she was standing outside and she screamed at me.

"Suck my ass, Mr. Collins, suck my ass!"

I ignored her and I felt sorry for her. She clearly had problems. Then the next day I was in Johnny's C diner eating breakfast and in comes the girl with her father, acting as if she was a little princess. She did a double take when she saw me sitting at the counter and for a second she looked panicked and fearful as it occurred to her I could tell her Dad what she said and how she behaved. I figured there was no point in outting her little performance and I gave her a half smile before returning my attention to the morning paper. She never gave me a hard time again when I had her in a class.

While there was plenty of wild and weird times with some of these kids there were also moments of pay off joy when a student said something nice, behaved themselves, or even answered a question when I actually taught a lesson. Other times I was able to offer some free advice to a moody or sad kid in the hallway or lunch room and that made me feel better. I saw myself in some of those kids and I remembered teachers who made a difference for me by saying the right thing at the right time.

I gained a whole new respect for the teaching profession being a substitute and witnessing first hand the hard work teachers perform every day. Are there some rotten teachers out there? Sure. But there are also some real professionals who love what they do, bring passion to the job, and make a difference with the kids. On some days I felt like I was making a contribution being a part of the team, other days I wished I had declined Betty's offer to substitute when something went wrong or the kids were running amok.

I still went to the career center for four hours a day when I wasn't filling in at the school. I had a few more interviews but no job offers. It was discouraging but at least I could feel important when I put on a tie and carried a satchel into Hillsboro High School to pretend I was an actual teacher for another day. One day I was a Spanish teacher playing the movie Forrest Gump in Spanish. Another day I was a music teacher showing High School Musical as the lesson for the day. I was a gym teacher, a technology teacher, an English Teacher and even a Math teacher. I sure did get around!

I became accustomed to the same faces, not just the students but the teachers as well, the ones I'd never met before as well as a few I remembered from my days at the school. I felt like an outsider in the teacher's lunch room so I often brought my own lunch and ate in the empty classroom. Occasionally, I'd venture into the cafeteria for a hot lunch and I'd be forced to eat in the teacher's sanctuary.

One day I stepped into the teacher's lunch room carrying a lunch tray and I saw that the sanctuary was empty except for one woman sitting at a table reading a book and eating a salad. Her hair was so white it almost looked blond but the moment I saw her I knew who she was - rail thin, the hooked nose, the pointed chin.

"Ms. Dawson!" I exclaimed.

The woman looked up with surprise and she studied me for a moment. "It's Mrs. Tobias," she informed me.

She was Ms. Dawson when I knew her. She was a brand new teacher my junior year, a gangly looking young woman. My friends called her 'Stick' and 'Horseneck' behind her back because she wasn't the most attractive woman we'd ever seen. She was a toothpick of a person with breasts smaller than most of the petite freshman girls. Her hips barely shaped her frame and her face was long, plain and seemingly featureless except for her noticeably hooked nose and a chin that formed an ice cream cone at the bottom of her thin face. Her hair back then was long and light but stringy like spaghetti and perhaps even greasy. She could have easily played the Wicked Witch of the West with a little green make up but she was a good person and I liked her because she was nice to me.
One of my few talents back then was in art. Although I didn't take any formal classes I was pretty good at sketching cartoons and drawing characters. I would often do joke stuff for my few friends and I spent hours in my bedroom alone working on my craft. One day I was doodling in a study hall that Ms. Dawson was in charge of and she happened to notice my scribbling as she passed by my seat. She stopped and took the time to compliment me on my talents and she encouraged me to keep practicing my art.

Ms. Dawson was the new art teacher that year and even though I hadn't enrolled in any of those courses I began showing up in her classroom when I had a study hall or free period and that's where I worked on my drawing. Ms. Dawson was the first teacher to take an interest and pay attention to me. She was supportive, kind, motivating, insightful and forever positive. She's the one who got me to be confident enough in my work to submit cartoons to the school newspaper The Hurricane. Eventually, some of the clubs around the school recruited me to draw posters and other art work to promote causes and student council campaigns. I wrote a regular comic strip for the student newspaper senior year called 'In the Hallway' which poked fun at some of the school routines.

I took two art courses senior year with Ms. Dawson and I became a much more confident and skilled cartoonist and character artist. It also made me more popular around school and people actually started talking to me and complimenting me.

I continued my artistic talents in my Navy career, submitting some of my cartoon work to national military publications and the local base newsletters and other platforms. I owed everything to Ms. Dawson who drew me out of my shell and got me to believe in myself. She was the one teacher who made a true difference in my life and now here I was standing in the teacher's lunch room thirty years later gawking at her.

"Mrs. Tobias, I'm Casey Collins," I announced, resisting the urge to jaunt across the room, lift her out of her chair and hug her.

Mrs. Tobias' jaw dropped and her eyes went wide. "Casey Collins!" She exclaimed with amazement. "What on earth are you doing here?"

"Substituting," I replied sheepishly. "I'm sort of between jobs."

Mrs. Tobias rose from her seat and took a step toward me. She was an inch or two taller but really, other than the ghost white hair, she looked the same except maybe for the crow's feet by her eyes and a few wrinkles on her chin. Her hair actually looked healthier than in her younger years. Although it was white, it was well groomed, well styled, and it was thick and full. She was still a stick of a woman with a flat bust and no hips, beanpole legs coming out from underneath the skirt she was wearing. She had always been a plain (even homely) woman but now, from my adult perspective, there was something almost sexy about her too. Maybe it was the hair or maybe it was my schoolboy memories flashing back in such an affectionate way. She had been my favorite person of all time.

"It's good to see you, Casey," Mrs. Tobias said warmly.

"Is it okay if I sit?" I asked, gesturing to the table with my lunch tray.

"Of course," she smiled. "Please."

Mrs. Tobias returned to her seat and I sat across from her.

"So, you're still the art teacher," I said, impressed by her longevity.

"Well, there's not really an art department anymore," she revealed. "Budget cuts," she sighed. "I'm sort of a jack of all trades now. I teach in the IT department - graphic arts mostly. I'm part of the theatre arts department and I get to practice some art there and I'm part of the journalism department so I get to pass on some of it there too. I'm also student council advisor and I run the peer mentoring program."

"It's really great to see you!" I marveled, overjoyed to be in her presence.

"Casey Collins," she smiled. "You look a little different but as soon as you said your name I recognized your face."

I was wearing a neatly trimmed beard but its brown was streaked with gray. My hair was still Navy short but I wore it to my shoulders in high school. Most of the brown hair was also streaked with gray. I wore wire rimmed glasses now but my teenaged acne was mercifully long gone and I had my teeth repaired and straightened while in the Navy. I had been pudgy and burly as a teen but the Navy allowed me to shed all that 'baby fat' and although I was getting a little puffy in the stomach ten years removed form the service I was still in pretty fit shape.

I saw her wedding band on the teacher's boney finger and of course her name was different.

"So, you're married," I said.

"Widowed, actually," she let me know. "Almost three years now."

"I'm sorry," I said with true sympathy. "My Dad died around that time too."

"My condolences," Mrs. Tobias replied.

"I'm surprised he lasted that long," I admitted, remembering how much he had abused his body with alcohol.

We chit-chatted for a few more minutes (mostly about how the school had changed since my day) and then the bell rang and we were both due at our next scheduled period so we exchanged farewells as we left the teacher's lunch room together.

"I gotta tell you, Mrs. Tobias, that you were the best teacher I ever had!" I gushed as we walked out the door.

She looked at me with a smirk on her face. "Thank you, Casey," she said warmly. "I appreciate your kindness."

I watched her disappear down the fall and I felt overwhelmingly excited about seeing Ms. Dawson – er, Mrs. Tobias – again after so many years. I never forgot the impression she made or the lasting affect she had on me and seeing her now made me feel rejuvenated.

I'd never been with an older woman. Beth was younger than me and after we divorced I dated 'younger' in order to keep myself feeling young too but seeing Ms. Dawson again – even as a woman in her mid-fifties – made me realize that there was something about her that made me stir inside.

Maybe it was her first name that initially caught my attention all those years ago. Forta. I remember when another teacher called her that in the hallway one day. It was unusual as names go but then again Ms. Dawson was rather unusual as a person. Even though she wasn't attractive in the normal since I was struck early on by how wonderfully confident and happy she seemed to be. She loved her job, she was a good teacher, and she was among the few that actually gave a shit about me.

I had forgotten how infatuated I had been with Ms. Dawson back then. I never told anybody, afraid they'd laugh at me for being attracted to a woman most didn't think was attractive at all but when I looked back on it now I came to realize that Ms. Dawson changed my life. Ironically, I now found myself in a similar emotional place that I had been when I first met Ms. Dawson - feeling lonely and alone, driftless, unsuccessful, and perhaps even slightly depressed.

I was a middle aged unemployed divorced man trying to find my way just as I had been a struggling young man when Ms. Dawson showed me that I could succeed and be someone. I wanted to substitute every day after coming across Ms. Dawson in the teacher's lunch room and whenever I was filling in at Hillsboro High I found myself looking for Ms. Dawson. Just being able to say hi to her made my day.

Our paths crossed frequently, especially after I got a copy of her schedule when I actually substituted for her one day! Knowing where she'd probably be at various times of the day made it easier for me to time my schedule so I could pass her in the hall or have the same lunch period as her or see her in the auditorium study hall. That was so 'high school' but I couldn't help myself! We'd exchanged hellos and – when time allowed – have a conversation, especially in the lunch room where I made it a point to sit next to her.

We mostly talked about the school day – who I was substituting for and what I was doing and then Mrs. Tobias would tell me about her day, usually some success story. It was clear that even after all these years she still enjoyed teaching and she wasn't burned out like some of the other older teachers.

There was a school assembly one day and I got to stand with Mrs. Tobias against the side wall for nearly an hour keeping an eye on the kids in front of us, listening to the presentation, and making editorial comments to Mrs. Tobias under my breath. She was standing so close to me that I could smell her perfume and it made me feel warm.

Mrs. Tobias asked me if I continued with my art and drawing work after high school as we ate lunch together one day and I revealed that I had only done such work sporadically, drawing cartoons for underground unit newsletters or command publications and occasionally submitting them to national publications. I'd also do posters and other art work for safety campaigns and command contests but that I hadn't pursued the talent professionally.

That night I went home and dragged out all my old art supplies and decided to start my hobby again instead of sitting around alone watching television all night. Doing some serious artwork again – landscapes and portraits – might get my creative juices flowing and hopefully help me feel better about myself and my situation. Who knows, maybe I'd even sell a piece or two.

One afternoon I was leaving the school after another substitute gig when I saw Mrs. Tobias heading for her car.

"Mrs. Tobias!" I called on a whim.

She turned and saw me walking toward her.

"Would you like to get a cup of coffee with me?" I boldly asked when I reached her.

Mrs. Tobias was definitely caught off guard by the invitation and she hesitated for a moment, giving it some thought.

"How 'bout Johnny C's?" She asked with a smile and I was relieved by her response.

"Great!" I agreed.

Five minutes later we were seated at a booth in the popular hometown diner drinking coffee and eating pie.

"So what happened to your job?" Mrs. Tobias asked.

"Do you remember Mike White?" I inquired. "He was a buddy of mine in high school."

"Vaguely," she admitted.

"I was grateful when he offered me a job after I retired with twenty years in the Navy," I said. "His family ran the cardboard box manufacturing company here in town."

"In that old factory building down by the river," Mrs. Tobias recalled.

"I was happy to join a three-generation business that enjoyed local ties and a solid reputation," I said. "I was put in charge of the administration section under the tutelage of soon to retire Henry Buchanan and he taught me the ropes. His mentoring combined with my Navy experience made me an easy fit and for the next ten years I was part of the management team. I had worked summers on the floor as a teenager alongside Mike so I knew the business well."

"I'm glad you landed on your feet when you got out of the Navy," Mrs. Tobias said.
"Hillsboro's my home town and I was happy to be back although I was a different person then when I left at eighteen," I said.

"I should hope so!" Mrs. Tobias smiled.

"The Navy toughened me up, gave me confidence, and allowed me to excel," I said.

"What about your personal life?" Mrs. Tobias wondered.

"That wasn't as successful," I admitted with a sigh. I met a girl named Beth in San Diego and we got married but we barely lasted ten years."

"What happened?" Mrs. Tobias asked as she took a sip of her coffee.

"The Navy life wasn't for her," I shrugged. "We divorced after my umpteenth deployment. She re-married and I became a third wheel absent father which pains me to this day. The real tragedy is that I don't get to see my two kids very often but now that they're almost adults maybe it will be easier for them to travel out here instead of me always heading out that way."

"That would be nice," Mrs. Tobias agreed politely.

"I bought a small condo on the north side out near the airport," I told her. "I got reacquainted with my siblings and friends still in the area but dating in your late forties can be tough. People are burned out, divorced, preoccupied with careers, children and even grandchildren so commitment and second chances are not always the first priority with a lot of people."

Mrs. Tobias looked at me with interest. "You still haven't told me what happened with the job," she noted.

"Oh yeah," I said, blushing slightly. "After eight years with the company I was feeling pretty good about my moorings in life. I liked my job, I enjoy Hillsboro, and I was financially secure enough to make the trip cross-country to San Diego to see my children a couple of times a year. But Mike's Dad was approaching seventy and it was assumed that he would turn the business over to Mike who had been his father's right hand for years."

"Oh, that's right, they sold the place," Mrs. Tobias remembered.

I nodded affirmatively. "There had been talk of selling to a larger company that ran similar box manufacturing outfits in other states. Mike lost his wife to cancer a few years earlier and he himself had been battling health issues so I guess he wasn't as gun-ho about being solely responsible for the business when his Dad stepped down as he had been in younger days."

"Sometimes life catches up to you," Mrs. Tobias remarked.
"The Whites' sold the business with the understanding that Mike would stay on as Chief Operating Officer of the Hillsboro plant," I explained. "It was stipulated that there would be little change under the new ownership so the rest of us weren't particularly worried about the sale."

"But you were wrong," Mrs. Tobias guessed.

"Old Man White retired and Mike assumed duties as the COO under the Baxter's ownership," I said. "There were a few procedural and cultural changes under the new management but otherwise business went on as usual."

"Until?" She asked, peering at me.

"Until about six months later when Mike called me into the conference room where he and Jeff McIntosh from Corporate sat," I sighed.

"Uh-oh," Mrs. Tobias said.

"Mike looked pale and distracted and he let McIntosh do the talking," I said. "Corporate felt that most of the administrative office responsibilities could be outsourced to the home office to cut down on duplication and, as a result, my position was being eliminated - immediately."

"You never saw it coming?" Mrs. Tobias asked with surprise.

"I guess I was naïve," I sighed. "I was given a severance and a thank you and then McIntosh walked me to my office so I could collect my stuff and leave. Mike didn't say a word and I felt betrayed but I was man enough not to make a scene."

"Good for you," Mrs. Tobias said with a smile.

"'It's nothing personal' McIntosh said as I boxed up my personal effects, turned in my keys and computer passwords, and was escorted from the premises, past several employees who couldn't look me in the eyes," I recalled, some bitterness still in my voice. "'It's personal for me,' I told McIntosh as he opened the main door for my departure."

"Of course it was," Mrs. Tobias said with understanding.

"'Good luck,' was all McIntosh had to say as I walked past him," I said with annoyance. "I was in shock for a few days, numbed by the realization that I was unemployed, backstabbed by my high school pal."

"I'm sure it was out of his control," Mrs. Tobias reasoned.

"I guess," I shrugged. "It still didn't feel good."

"Have you seen him since?" Mrs. Tobias wanted to know.

I shook my head no. "I guess we're both conveniently avoiding each other."

"Give it time," Mrs. Tobias advised.

"With my Navy retirement, the severance, and unemployment insurance, I'm okay financially," I said. "But it was my manly ego that took the big hit. Nobody likes being fired and considered not worthy. Men of a certain age don't like the stigma and reputation that comes with being out of work."

"Nobody does," she agreed.

"I felt worthless, unimportant, and rejected," I admitted. "And at nearly fifty I knew that I was basically washed up. It was going to be extremely difficult to find a job of equal stature and pay at my age."

"The job market has been a challenge in recent years," Mrs. Tobias remarked.

"I was so embarrassed about what happened that I didn't tell my family I was out of work," I confessed with humiliation. "It wasn't until my sister stopped by the factory to invite me out to lunch that I had to come clean and tell them I had been fired. I said "let go" and "asked to leave" and "my position was eliminated" but let's face it: I was fired. Canned. Terminated. Given the boot. Kicked out. Dumped."

"You're being much too hard on yourself, Casey," Mrs. Tobias told me.

"I moped around feeling sorry for myself for a few weeks until my kid sister told me to pull my head out of my ass, get back on the horse, and go find a job!" I laughed. "So I updated my resume, revamped my cover letter, and spent four hours a day at the career center in Greenville checking out the various job listings and sending out resumes left and right."

"How'd it go?" Mrs. Tobias wondered.

"Looking for a job is a full time job!" I exclaimed. "Tracking the resumes, writing follow up letters, making phone calls, showing up for interviews, and networking with others all in attempt to get hired never ends."

"I can imagine," Mrs. Tobias said.

"I had twenty years of Navy experience and almost ten years at the box company but I'm nearly fifty years old and the guy at the career center told me I was competing with more people - many younger than me - for less jobs. I thought my Veteran status would give me some brownie points but as the weeks went on and the number of resumes mailed increased I began to realize that I was just another sap pounding the pavement in pursuit of an unrealistic expectation. Who was going to hire a middle-aged high end employee when they could hire a much younger guy for half the cost?"

"So you began substituting," Mrs. Tobias realized.

"I thought it would be a good distraction," I said. "Keep me busy and my mind off my woes."

"Has it?" Mrs. Tobias asked.

I smiled at her, feeling uplifted and contented for the first time in a long time. "It has," I let her know.

The inference was that I liked the kids and the experience but the truth was I was content because I was around Mrs. Tobias again, but I didn't tell her that. I remembered how she'd talk to me in her art classroom, sometimes after class. She was always full of insight, observation, compassion and advice and she was one of the few positive role models I had in my life.

Our coffee and pie long gone, we glanced around the diner and realized that the early dinner crowd was starting to arrive.

"Oh wow," I said with surprise. "We haven't even talked about you yet."

"There isn't much to tell," she smiled as she gathered her things to go.

"Sorry I talked your head off," I said with embarrassment as I stood.

"I enjoyed listening," she assured me with a warm grin.

I paid the bill and walked her to her car. "Thanks for a lovely time," I said. "I really enjoyed it."

"Me too," Mrs. Tobias smiled before getting into her car.

I watched her drive off trying to decide if our cup of coffee together could be considered a first date!

As the school year progressed, I got the impression that Betty the Substitute Coordinator considered me a favorite (either that or someone on the staff requested my presence before others on the list) because I was getting called almost every day to fill in for somebody. I never turned an assignment down knowing that Mrs. Tobias was going to be at the school too and I was making enough money substituting that I didn't have to worry too much about my expenses. I had health insurance through the VA so there was no pressure there but I hadn't given up on finding a full time job even though it remained a slow haul.

There was a teacher's Holiday party being held at the Elks Club and because I was now considered a semi-regular and had made some acquaintance among the teachers, para-professionals, and aides, I was invited to attend (as long as I paid the twenty-five bucks for a ticket!). I was flattered by the compliment and when I found out that Mrs. Tobias was going I was happy to fork over the cash for a ticket.

The Elks Club was decked out in holiday splendor, Christmas music played on the speakers, Santa made the rounds, and a reputable caterer provided a delicious meal. There was also a bar, dancing and plenty of activities. It was fun to see the teachers (and spouses and significant others) having a good time away from the job, letting their hair down sort of speak. The personalities in a holiday party situation were completely different from their in-the-classroom persona and I got a kick out of watching some of the most uptight teachers kicking back and letting go at the party.

Mrs. Tobias and I arrived separately. I saw her wearing a long red wool dress that hung on her body like a giant socking, barely accenting her small breasts and flat hips. She spent plenty of time socializing with her co-workers but our paths crossed several times. We ate at the same table (with six others) and I made sure Santa gave her a candy cane. I noticed her watching me a few times during the night when we were both with other people and that made me feel good. I had a few holiday drinks but I wasn't drunk by any stretch of the imagination and as the night progressed I found myself watching her just as much as she appeared to be watching me.

At one point, Mrs. Tobias strolled my way as I was eyeing the desert table, a drink in her hand and a hop in her step. I had the feeling she was feeling pretty relaxed too.

"Hey, Casey," she smiled. "Having a good time?"

"I almost feel like a real teacher," I joked.

"You'd make a wonderful teacher," she assured me as she took a brownie from one of the plates.

I scoffed a couple of cookies and we walked to a nearby available table away from the nose, music, and people.

"I'm too old to go back for a degree," I said once we were comfortably seated. "For teaching," I explained.

"You're never too old," Mrs. Tobias replied. "What about an art degree?" She suggested.

"You know, I have thirty years of experience in Administration," I replied. "I'd like to continue on in that field if I could find a position."

"What about Cynthia's job in the high school administrative office?" Mrs. Tobias asked.

"What about it?"

"She's six months pregnant and she's going to be leaving for good," Mrs. Tobias revealed. "They haven't posted the job yet but you should go talk to Principal Laclaire. Maybe she can get you an in ahead of the others."

That was an intriguing prospect. I had watched the administrative staff at work being in the office frequently as a substitute. It was a job I could do with one hand tied behind my back and it would be something I'd be interested in doing too, especially if it meant seeing Mrs. Tobias every day!

"I will," I said with a grin.

Mrs. Tobias smiled with approval.

"We didn't have holiday parties like this at the box company," I said.

"Marvin and I enjoyed coming to this one," Mrs. Tobias said with sentimentality. "It was our one big night out a year."

"I attended some pretty fancy ones in the Navy," I revealed. "But there wouldn't' have been any party for me this year if I hadn't come to this one."

"This is my first one without Marvin," Mrs. Tobias let me know. "I just couldn't bring myself to come the past few years."

"I'm glad you came this year," I smiled.

"I am too," she smiled.

We shared favorite Christmas memories – mostly that of our kids when they were little. Mrs. Tobias had two adult daughters in their early twenties. From our conversations over the past few months, I knew Mrs. Tobias was nearly thirty when she got married, convinced that she was going to be an "old maid" before she met Marvin Tobias at a church function. They married less than a year later and had more than twenty happy years together before she woke one morning to find him next to her in the bed dead.

"He looked like he was sleeping," she recalled sadly. "But when I touched him he was cold."

I wanted to give her a hug when she told me that story because I saw the grief on her face and the sadness in her eyes.

"My mother took forever to die," I told her sadly. "It was almost anticlimactic when it finally happened."

"I'm sure you still miss her," Mrs. Tobias remarked.

"I do," I admitted. "Every day."

Our conversation at the holiday party was much more cheerful than the story of her husband's (and my mother's) death. I told more Navy stories and she shared some teaching tales, including how she was now teaching kids of kids she taught twenty years ago.

"I actually taught my first third generation student this year," she laughed. "That's how old I'm getting."

Turns out a student Mrs. Tobias had as a senior her first year teaching had a baby the next year who graduated from Hillsboro and had a child of her own the following year and now that child was a sophomore at Hillsboro High.

People were leaving but Mrs. Tobias and I was having such a great time that we stayed talking until they finally brought the lights up and told us we had to leave! I was sorry to see the night end and Mrs. Tobias expressed the same sentiments as we left the Elks Club.

"You could always come back to my place," I said as I walked her to her car in the cold wintery air. I made it sound innocent but it probably came out as desperate. "I could show you some of my artwork."

"Oh, your artwork," Mrs. Tobias said with a grin. She looked at me as though she was actually considering my invitation. "That's really very sweet of you, Casey, but I think its best that I head home. It's the proper thing to do."

I nodded in reluctant agreement as she opened the door to her car but then Mrs. Tobias hesitated before getting in, apparently thinking about perhaps changing her mind. Her face looked sad so that I reached out and gave her hand a squeeze.

"Merry Christmas, Forta," I said, calling her by her first name for the first time ever.

"Maybe we could share a night cap," she decided. "Why don't I follow you to your place?"

I could have kissed her on the spot. A night cap with Mrs. Tobias!

I gestured toward my car parked a couple of rows away. The lot was almost empty as we were among the last to leave. She smiled and nodded before getting into her car.

I hurried to my vehicle and fired it to life, driving slowly so I wouldn't lose Mrs. Tobias behind me. It wasn't as if there was a lot of traffic on the streets at this time of night or that Hillsboro was so big that she might get lost but I didn't want her to have any reason not to find her way to my condo. It had been ages since any woman had come for a visit. I had been so despondent after getting canned from the box company that I lost interest in dating.

But bumping into Ms. Dawson (Mrs. Tobias) after so many years seemed to rejuvenate my hopes and spirits. She represented all that was good in my otherwise challenging youth and now that I was a middle aged man trying to find my way again I honestly believed that there was a reason why I decided to substitute teach – so I could meet up with Ms. Dawson again after all these years, free from the restrictions of age, boundaries, and appropriateness. I had the feeling that Mrs. Tobias could still teach me a thing or two and maybe – just maybe – I could now teach her something too, like she didn't have to be a grieving lonely widow for the rest of her life.

Mrs. Tobias' headlights stayed in my rear view mirror for the entire ride (it was only a couple of miles) and she followed my car into the short driveway of my one floor five room condo.

We both climbed out of our vehicles and met at the walk leading to my front door.

"This looks like a nice set up," she observed.

"I like it," I said. "It's quiet and low key."

"I've been debating on whether or not I should sell the house and move into something like this," Mrs. Tobias revealed as we walked to my front door. "The girls' feel the house is the last piece of their childhood and they aren't ready to give it up just yet."

"But they already moved out," I said.

"They can still come back," she smiled.

I put the key in the lock and sucked in my breath as I opened the door. Mrs. Tobias followed me inside. The place was neat and well kept (my Navy training) and I had interesting art work up on the walls, some of the work my own. We stepped into the living room as Mrs. Tobias took in the surroundings, seemingly impressed with the artwork.

The condo was handsomely furnished with conservative furniture. About the only lavish thing in the place was my entertainment center that included a huge flat screen on the wall.

My visitor removed her winter coat and draped it over one of the corner arm chairs.

"I have some wine," I said. "Or beer."

"A glass of wine sounds nice," Mrs. Tobias said as she stood in the middle of the room glancing about.

I nodded and went into the kitchen to pour two glasses of wine. I took a moment to rest against the counter and take a deep breath, surprised at how nervous I felt, almost like I was seventeen again, back in high school and that was Miss Dawson out there. Well, it was Ms. Dawson out there – only now she was Mrs. Tobias and I was no longer seventeen.

When I returned to the living room with the two glasses of wine in my hand, Mrs. Tobias was standing near the far wall studying one of my paintings, a seascape of a Navy destroyer chopping through heavy seas.

"The detail is impressive," my former art teacher critiqued as she examined the painting. "Good job."

"Thanks," I smiled, gesturing to the couch.

Mrs. Tobias walked across the room and took a seat as I handed her one of the glasses of wine. I kept the second one for myself and sat next to her.

"Do you still paint?" I asked.

"Not as much as I should," she admitted. "I painted a mural for my granddaughter's nursery last summer," she said proudly.

"That's nice," I replied.

"Since they cut the budget of the art department I really haven't had the motivation to do much of my own work," she confessed. "I know that's a cop out but it's the truth and then when Marvin died I just didn't have the passion to do anything."

"You'll know when you're ready again," I said warmly.

"Did you?" She asked with interest.

I nodded affirmatively but I didn't tell her it was when I saw her again that I rediscovered my desire.

Mrs. Tobias smiled as she studied me for a moment. "You were one of the best students I ever had," she let me know. "Not the most talented but you definitely had the conviction, discipline and desire to do the best you could. 'True Grit' I thought to myself."

"I wanted to impress you," I let her know honestly.

She seemed surprised by that revelation. "Why?"

"You were the best teacher I ever had," I replied. "You were the first teacher who cared. Who took an interest in me. Who told me I could be somebody. Who believed in me."

Her mouth opened and she started to say something but then she changed her mind and she put her hand on mine where it rested on my thigh. There was an awkward silence.

"I'm glad I made a difference," Mrs. Tobias finally said with sincerity. "But I was never your mother, Casey. Or your girlfriend."

Her comment stung, feeling like a slap of rejection but I tried not to react to it.

"You wanted me to study art and purse a degree," I reminded her. "But I was so miserable at home that I just wanted to get the hell out of town so I enlisted in the Navy even before I graduated and I was out of here a week after I got my diploma."

"I don't think it was a bad choice," She observed. "You turned out pretty well. You have a training you can use. Artists are a dime a dozen, most of them teaching IT classes," she said cynically.

"I'm a substitute teacher," I sighed.

"Not forever," she told me, squeezing my hand and moving closer on the couch. "What are you doing alone?" She wanted to know.

"The same thing you are," I replied. "Your husband died. My marriage died."

"Do you think you could ever be happy again?" She wanted to know.

I was surprised by her question but when I thought about it the answer came easily. "Yes," I said, looking straight into her eyes. "Do you?"

"I...I don't know," Mrs. Tobias replied in complete honesty. "I loved my husband. I miss him every day. I know people aren't supposed to grieve forever, that we're supposed to learn to go on with our lives but it's hard when there's such emptiness."

I didn't say anything as I listened.

"I still like my job and I love being a mom and a grammy but I suppose my life could be better, I guess." She smiled sadly and then she gave me a look.

"It's hard to believe we've known each other for so long," I said.

"You became quite an impressive man," she remarked.

"You were always a very impressive woman," I replied knowingly.

"Neither of us are the same people we were when you were my student and I was your teacher, Casey," Mrs. Tobias warned. "You were just a kid and I was a new teacher trying to find my way."

"You found it well," I told her, touching her hand.

"I've felt lost since Marvin died."

I nodded with understanding but I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do next. Could I comfort her without coming across as a leech and a horny bastard?

Ironically, Mrs. Tobias made the first move, leaning in close to me on the couch and giving me a tender light kiss on my lips. I was pleased by her gesture and I softly kissed her back.

"You okay?" I asked when she broke the kiss and sat back to eye me once again.

Mrs. Tobias nodded with a small smile. "Are you?"

I raised my eyebrows with amusement. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"I'm a lonely widow, Casey," she warned. "I'm older than you. I'll never be as pretty as some of those girls you must have had in those ports of yours."

I took her hand and pulled her so close that our noses were touching. "I think you're beautiful," I whispered.

I saw her eyes water up. I smiled and carefully brushed her tear away. Her lips touched mine and I ran my tongue across her mouth. I was surprised when she opened it but I slipped my tongue inside her mouth anyway and she sucked on it to tell me that it was okay.

We worked our mouths for a while and then I finally broke away.

"Do you want to spend the night?" I boldly asked.

"Yes," she dared to answer.

I swallowed nervously, suddenly feeling like the student again.

"But maybe I shouldn't," she sighed.

"Why not?" I frowned.

She tried to think of an answer but apparently she couldn't come up with one.

"Stay," I pleaded in a whisper. "We can both help each other."

"I used to be your teacher," Mrs. Tobias worried. "That's a cardinal sin."

"I think the statue of limitations have run out on that rule, Forta," I told her.

"Why would you want to be with someone like me?" She sighed.

"Because I think you're wonderful," I replied.

"I'm not a pretty woman." Her voice cracked.

"Yes you are," I assured her.

"I grew up ugly, Casey," she told me bluntly. "In a low self-confidence poor body image kind of way, just ugly for real."

"Please don't say that," I said, hearing the hurt in her voice.

"A guy I dated in college told me that he hoped my children didn't end up looking like me," she revealed.

"That's just cruel," I protested.

"I was always gangly and thin with this ski nose and witches' chin," she said heavily as she gestured to her face. "I used to wear ugly glasses, my hair was straw and I had horrible acne all through my teens. I even wore braces, of course. It was not a fun time."

"Those days are long gone," I assured her.

"I spent middle school eating lunch mostly alone or with other unattractive girls," she sighed. "Boys would tell me that I was the ugliest girl in the school."

"They don't anymore," I said.

"Even after I got the braces off and replaced the glasses with contacts I still wasn't going to be voted a beauty queen," Mrs. Tobias said honestly. "But it was okay because being ugly built my character. I got tough and I used my brains to succeed. I accepted that I was the unattractive girl and once I stopped fighting it I stopped worrying about it too."

"Forta," I sighed, putting the back of my hand against her cheek as we sat on the couch.

"I knew my parents loved me but for as long as I can remember I was teased for my looks," Mrs. Tobias continued. "My Dad told me I was beautiful but he was my Dad, of course he was going to say that."

"He knew it was true," I said.

"When I was in high school my friend's dad actually said 'Too bad you're not as pretty as your sister' to me!"

"That's just not nice," I complained.

"My biggest fear in high school was that some guy would ask me out on a bet with his friends as part of some stupid prank," she admitted. "That would have been the worse humiliation of all."

I stared at her as she told me her sad story of youth. I used to feel sorry for myself for some of my woes but I had nothing on poor Mrs. Tobias.

"Instead of focusing on what I lacked, I started focusing on my personality and my talents," Mrs. Tobias told me. "Luckily I was fairly intelligent and I got involved in several groups and clubs to have some sort of social life. I made some friends but I knew many of them felt sorry for me which was a constant reminder of me being different. One of my friends' brothers even asked me to a dance out of pity. I don't know which was worse – the ridicule or the sympathy."

"All of that stuff made you such a wonderful teacher," I realized. "You had such great empathy for kids like me."

"I always felt invisible, like I was the girl in the shadows," she said. "I didn't want any other kid to feel that way so I always tried to be a positive motivating influence."

"You are," I assured her. "That's one of the reasons why you're so beautiful in so many ways."

"I never thought I'd get married and that was okay," Mrs. Tobias said, glancing at me. "I loved being a teacher. That was my vocation and my calling. I was content and satisfied. Meeting Marvin was a fluke. I wasn't looking for romance or a long term relationship but we seemed to mesh so I didn't question it. He had his quirks and he was peculiar but he was good to me and he was a God fearing man. We had two beautiful daughters together – I'm so happy they weren't cursed with my looks."

"I never would have guessed any of those things about you," I admitted as I looked into her eyes. "You struck me as a grounded, confident, assured teacher, unwavering in her convictions and in control of every situation in the school."

"Those first few years I'd go home at night and cry myself to sleep," Mrs. Tobias revealed. "I saw how some of you boys looked at me. Laughed behind my back. Had your names for me. I started the same year as Miss Lacoy, the business teacher."

I had forgotten about Miss Lacoy who was certainly a beautiful woman.

"She wasn't a very good teacher," I volunteered.

"She was good to look at," Mrs. Tobias remarked knowingly. "Boys would gawk at her."

"Teenaged boys are morons," I reminded her. "They're all about hormones and sex. I don't even remember what Miss Lacoy looked like but I never forgot you."

"Because of the way I looked," she pouted.

"No, because of who you were," I replied. "I didn't have it has hard as you growing up but it wasn't a whole lot of fun for me either. My mom was sick all the time and she died when I was fourteen. My father was a drunk so my sisters and I were on our own. I carried a lot of guilt and shame about my family and I tended to isolate to avoid having to deal with any of it."

"I'm sorry," Mrs. Tobias said with understanding.

"And then junior year you arrived and you showed interest in my art and you encouraged me and you paid attention to me and those last few years here were just terrific – because of you," I assured her.

She smiled. "Thanks, Casey."

"So," I said, sucking in my breath. "Stay."

She nodded so I stood and reached my hand out to her. She took and I gently pulled her to her feet.

"Where's the bathroom?" She asked.

I walked her down the short hall and pointed to the bathroom across from the master bedroom. She didn't say anything as she stepped into the bathroom and closed the door behind her.

I went into my bedroom and quickly changed out of my jeans and jacket into a pair of sweats and a tee shirt, taking a seat on the end of the bed to nervously wait for my guest to return.

I heard water running and a moment later Mrs. Tobias emerged from the bathroom, slowly stepping into the bedroom and I was caught momentarily off guard when I saw that she was naked.

Mrs. Tobias was in her mid fifties but she had a girl's body. Because her breasts were so small they really didn't sag with age and her hips were surprisingly unrounded as she stepped toward me. Her pubic hair showed the hint of the color I recalled her having on her head when I was younger although it was streaked with light gray.

"Forta," I said with amazement.

She walked across the room right up to me where I sat on the bed. She pushed me back so I fell onto the mattress and then she climbed on top of me, kissing me slowly but passionately. I wrapped my arms around her. Her skin was sticky and damp and when I worked my hands down to her backside I mostly felt bone.

We continued to kiss for a good while and eventually I felt her hand reach down to my waist band and she tried to pull my sweats down. I gently rolled her off of me and onto her back. I stood and peeled off my tee shirt and dropped my sweats while I stared at her. The sight of her naked on my bed was something I never imagined seeing or sharing. She watched me become naked with subtle expectation and approval. She rolled off the bed and pulled down the covers and I joined her underneath. I pulled her into an embrace and I kissed her again. I saw the tears in her eyes and I smiled bravely.

"It'll be okay," I whispered.

"I know," she said quietly.

Later, we lay in the dark with her resting on my chest, my arms wrapped around her boney frame. Forta looked at me and smiled with satisfied eyes. "I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy it," she admitted.

I felt momentarily panicked. "Did you?" I dared to ask.

"Yes," she assured me

I chuckled with relief.

"I haven't done this in a long time," she confessed. "I wasn't sure if I ever would again after Marvin died. Not that we did a whole lot of it in the later years anyway."

I raised an eyebrow. "It's been a while for me too," I admitted. "But I'd do it with you every night if you'd let me."

"I'm sure you've had better," she said quietly.

Physically? Sure. Younger over sexed women eager to be with a Sailor. But I never felt an emotional connection to any of them, including Beth to be honest. With Forta there was a level of emotion I had never felt before when we made love for the first time. She may not have been the best lover physically but spiritually I knew she was my soul mate, the one I had been searching all of my life to find.

"You're the best, Forta," I told her.

I heard her quiet sobs and felt her tears on my skin.

"Don't cry, Forta," I said softly.

"I want to," she replied. "I've haven't cried happy tears in a very long time."

"I don't want to be a substitute with you, Forta," I told her.

"You're not," she assured me with a kiss.

I ended up getting Cynthia's job in the administrative office. Forta ended up renting her house to her younger daughter and boyfriend and she moved in with me. Sometimes I wondered if she saw me as a substitute for her late husband but she assured me that I was new for her and that made me very happy.