Blow's anticipation only half-prepared him for the impression Andrew Salzwedel would make when he stopped by Blow's home office early afternoon. He'd learned the history teacher was one of the most popular people at the high school, with students and teachers and even parents.
“He'd make a darned good principal but he says he'd rather teach.” This from a client with one kid who'd had Salzwedel and another currently in one of his classes. The client called worried about the implications of rumored bad blood between Newt Gunther and Salzwedel, “both being out there playing soldier and all.”
Blow had talked further with Homer Price after breakfast, in the parking lot out of likely eavesdropping range. Salzwedel had been a basketball star at the University of Maryland, and as such, “don't take no shit off none of those punks running around that school.”
Not having met Salzwedel nor seen a photo of him, that he knew of, Blow was expecting someone perhaps with a jockish, alpha-male-type presence. Pleasantly surprised, then, he was, to find the man who'd just entered his Stone House office to have a friendly, mild-seeming personality with a physicality almost like his own: medium height and build with a head of neatly trimmed curly hair. The most striking difference was the colors. Orange hair on Blow, black on Salzwedel; pale complexion v. cocoa. The teacher's athleticism was evident only in the grace and quickness of his movements, both in body and the intelligent, sensitive expressiveness of his face and dark, sparkling eyes.
“Really sorry to bother you on a Sunday, Mr. Stone, but my wife is really worried. We've been getting phone calls. Started soon as we got home yesterday afternoon.”
“Phone calls? What, threats?”
“No, congratulations. These are people I thought were friends. Fellow teachers, even some of my students.”
“You're kidding! They think you intentionally shot him?”
“They don't say it in so many words. Just things like Way to go, and Fat bastard had it coming. Some think they're being clever, calling it an accident but saying it in an arch way, implying just the opposite. It's sickening.”
Blow shook his head. “This is incredible. Is it obvious you two didn't get along? I'm assuming you had differences.”
“I'm always careful what I say. I don't gossip. Anyone who knows me knows that much. But to answer your question, yes Gunther and I had differences. I speak up in meetings when I think some policy or decision is bullshit. I don't use that word, but I don't mealy-mouth either.”
“Is Gunther...was he a bad principal?”
Salzwedel had dropped his gaze to the desk top after answering the previous question, peering earnestly into Blow's eyes as he did so. Now he rolled them up to meet Blow's again. He reached above his almost pretty face and massaged his forehead with the tips of slender fingers. He took a deep breath and exhaled before speaking.
“It's not an easy job, Mr. Stone. I wouldn't take it for love or money. In fact, it's cost me money and came close to costing me my wife. I was offered the job here and I turned it down. There aren't many jobs I would trade teaching for, but being principal is definitely not one of them. Cheryl and I had one of the most bitter fights of our marriage over that decision.”
The men looked at each other, expressionless. Then Blow cracked a grin. “Didn't you just say something about not being mealy-mouth?”
Salzwedel frowned slightly, then gave up a wide smile and shook his head. “You got me there, Mr. Stone--”
“Joe, please. I get nervous when people call me Mr. Stone.” He turned in his chair and pointed above him at the wall. “My dad, with the ponytail. The other guy's my grandfather. They're both Mr. Stone. I'm not quite there yet.”
“Fine, Joe. And I'm Andy. Anyway, to answer your question, Newt Gunther was the worst principal I've ever worked with. But—and this isn't being mealy-mouth—he was partly a victim of the system. And I'm not sure it's any different anywhere else. From what I hear, from friends who teach elsewhere, public schools are going to hell in general.
“The blame is cultural. Too much passive entertainment's the number one culprit, especially as it panders to adolescent appetites. We let TV raise our children, and we pacify them by buying them things, the things they see advertised on the tube. We don't teach them self discipline. It's the same in the schools. We teach children to pass tests that require only memorization. We don't teach them how to think. We're afraid to teach them how to think. It's too dangerous.”
“That's an old argument. Not that I don't agree, but it's been around awhile.”
“That is true. And you might wonder then why I'm so big on teaching, if all I'm doing is helping to turn out more interchangeable parts for a machine that doesn't do anything but make money. For people who don't give a shit for anything but money.”
“Ordinarily I would wonder about somebody who says what you just said, Andy, but I get the sense that you're doing, or at least you're trying to do more than just turning out interchangeable parts for some faceless machine. And, I should add, I understand you are highly respected and popular for what you are doing at the high school—at least by your students and colleagues.”
“Well, thank you. It's good to hear that. Yes, I am trying to teach children to think and to care about learning. In that respect I guess you could say I'm a subversive. I'm pretty sure Newt Gunther thought that's what I am.”
“You know, I'm surprised you and he didn't hit it off better, both being reenactors. That would certainly be something unusual to have in common.”
“You'd think so, wouldn't you? In that venue I'd say we were. It was as if we put our jobs completely behind us when we were out playing soldier. But even then it was pretty superficial. We never really let our powdered wigs down, so to speak.” Then a big grin, “Maybe because I was infantry and he was mounted. Just like it probly was back then.”
“Think there was anything racial?”
“Yeah, I suppose there's always that possibility. But I never sensed anything along that line, and, as you might expect, I'm pretty sensitive to the nuances.
“Anyway, with all the talk going around now, even if it's joking, Cheryl's worried--and because she is I have to take it seriously--that something official might happen. You know, an investigation. Police, School Board. I can't afford to lose my job over something like this, because it would crash my career. No one would ever hire me as a teacher again.”
“I don't see how you can be charged with anything. There's no proof it was your gun that killed him.”
“But I can't prove it wasn't my gun, either accidentally or, heaven forbid, intentionally. And that leaves motive and opportunity, and I suppose a good prosecutor could make a case for both.”
“True, but a good defense attorney can shoot down all three of those, pardon the pun.”
“Could a good attorney win a civil case if this costs me my job?”
“I should hope so, Andy.”
“Will you represent me?”
“You tell Cheryl yes, but don't give me any money. Let's hope this all just blows over. If you need me, though, I'm your lawyer.”
“Thanks, Joe. You know, it's a good thing you told me that guy in the picture behind you was your dad. I would've sworn it was some old English barrister in a wig like the one I wear playing soldier.”
“Not a problem. He still is my dad, by the way. In fact, he's probly puttering around here in the house right now.”