Entertaining Angels

by Matthew Sterner-Neely

A straight-A student hugs her boyfriend in the parking lot of Link Classical Academy before climbing into her grandmother’s minivan. This embrace is against LCA’s “No Touch” policy. The principal, Mr. Sterling, watches them hug, and from the gray and blue striped brickwork that stands out among the bike shops and fast food places of downtown Atheria, he raises his arm and calls to Grandma. Grandma pulls back into the parking spot. Sterling, silently stroking his beard, walks to the van, opens the sliding door, and gives the girl and her boyfriend 15 minutes of detention. She protests. Sterling gives them 30 minutes. She stops protesting, and instead, she starts a Facebook rebellion with blue ribbons and gray string. The next day, everyone is wearing blue and gray, and it’s not even the 1860s. By the time the dust settles, she is in danger of getting suspended for insubordination if she so much as wears blue jeans. This is stated in a confidential memo to faculty and staff.

#

A young woman walks to her barracks room from the community showers that all soldiers share in the middle of the desert on a base outside of Ar Ramadi, Iraq. Her hair drapes her shoulders, which is against US Army regulations. Six men, three who wear weapons across their backs, stare in her direction. She shifts her weight, and her ass moves just a bit more in each direction as she walks. The men slap their thighs and call her words like baby and honey. She looks over her shoulder. She places her hand over her face because it makes her seem coy to the silly boys. They hoot. They holler. They talk about that ass, so she shakes it a little more. She flips her hair. And then, when she turns her head back to the front, she runs into a man with two black bars on his collar. He questions her behavior. He asks her to explain just what the hell makes it okay to tempt those poor, poor boys, ten thousand miles from home. She protests. He reminds her that she is the one with a usable brain (nudge, nudge, Corporal Plath), and so the responsibility is hers to “keep our boys in check.” She protests. He dismisses her and begins court-martial proceedings, which are soon reduced to simple non-judicial punishment.
By the time the dust settles, she has lost her rank and she has lost her mind. Well, not lost it. We know where it is: it’s on the ceiling and the walls in a guard tower in the middle of Iraq. This is stated in a confidential memo to officers and NCOs in Alpha battery, 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery.

#

It’s not that I hate memos, necessarily; it’s that the memo to the faculty and staff is written in Comic Sans, and when Sterling strokes his beard while reading “confidential” Comic Sans memos in faculty meetings, these moments are certainly Sans-Much-the-Fuck-about-Anything. This dude even speaks in Comic Sans—hell, maybe the full effect can’t be understood without Sterling and his stroke-able beard. But the memo—at least I can share that. As a favor to me, Baker keeps reading the fucking thing, his voice oozing blackboard lettering and jovial spirits. He’s dead and he just keeps reading, and I am fine with that. He’s not the first dead man to come back and read a Comic-Sans fonted memo. He’s dead, but he just keeps a-Comic-Sansin’ away.

My wife Daley—who is not dead—but who sure as hell talks like a dead person—would say that including the memo in Part II: Chapter Eight, “Confidential Memo” is passive-aggressive—she would say it is passive-aggressive, and then she would read the memo properly, probably in Times New Roman or something else serif-y. If she spoke at all, I mean. For Baker, though, it’s all kicking ass and reading memos, and we are all out of asses.

Not everyone uses Comic Sans to discuss the expulsion of a student involved in such horrifying acts of disobedience as what the administration of LCA calls “The Facebooks.” The assistant principal, Mrs. Sterling—who just happens to be Mr. Sterling’s mother—you can’t make this shit up—Mrs. Sterling thinks the whole thing is a bit silly. I tell her how I am frustrated about the whole Facebook’s Rebellion thing, and about how Baker and I read the shit out of some memos, and she is very sympathetic to my plight of passive-aggression. She asks me if I am writing about it, and I say that yes, I am, and she says that this is a great idea. So here I am, writing about the girl with the blue-ribbon rebellion.

I warn this girl about violating the No-Touch policy again. She assures me that she doesn’t want to get into trouble and that she is done rocking the boat. We go back to class. Some asshole—probably Baker—tells Sterling that I warned her about the seriousness of blue ribbons and the Facebooks, so the next day, Mr. Sterling calls me into his office, and during my planning period and my lunch half-hour, he and one of the school district’s board members speak to me about violating the confidentiality of the memo by warning this kid in my class. They tell me that I am an asset. Then they tell me that men in blue with silver badges will carry me away if I commit such acts again. They tell me about the obvious dangers of the Facebooks. They do this for an hour and a half. After that, they tell me that my pants are frayed. Then they smack me on the ass and tell me they hope I am able to get some lunch. Surely this is some kind of joke, I say at one point. No, they say. This shit’s serious, they say, and don’t call me Shirley.

#

Sandra Plath—the “Plath” in “Sandra Plath” is an allusion to baking oneself in a fucking oven, so the wondering can just stop—Sandra Plath and I used to sing when we were on guard together, and she had a terrible voice. All the dust in the wind, probably. Our guard tower faced north, not that “north” meant anything—not when “DOWN,” as in “Get the fuck DOWN, Private!” was more immediate. After she shot herself, some asshole compared her life—written on the walls and the ceiling—to a visit from Santa Claus. At her memorial, the battalion commander said that rules were rules—he said it was black and white. He said that misery comes from disobeying orders, but that a death well-ordered meant something. After the service, I overheard a sick fucking joke:
What’s black and white and red all over?
Half a Plath in a tower.

Plath would have laughed her ass off.

#

While “The Facebooks” may be dangerous to young minds, the administration tells us that a walking field trip in the middle of downtown Atheria, Oregon is A-Okay. My students and I stroll to the ice skating rink as cars zip by on 6th street. We cross Main Street and enter the parking lot when a pickup truck drives by. The driver is moving the vehicle at a snail’s pace, and it is coming towards us, so we all kind of pause to see what is going on. I do nothing to shoo my kids aside, and this would be something I would regret for many, many moons.

For as the truck rolls by in freeze framed motion, out of the window hangs a big ass. I stare, open-mouthed, at this one-eyed monster, purple with cold and who-knows-what else. Some of my students laugh, and not a few of them scream and back away. One kid, a tall, beefy eighth-grade boy, glances at me. I see what he is going to do, and I make no move to stop him. The image of this slow-motion, purple butt, with its pimply hair is forever burned into my brain, and I just can’t move. This giant of an eighth grade boy glances at me, winds up, and there’s the pitch, a line drive down the 3rd-base line. At least I think touching someone’s ass is 3rd base. I never know anymore. I am sure that it might warrant detention if I had seen anything, which I didn’t.

#

Once, a convoy of SeaBees got shit on.

#

Teachers never get to pee. Or poop, for that matter. And in my school, where there is no staff bathroom, and when it is a poop that is coming out with the pee, we scoot our feet under the stall that barely hangs to below our knees. It doesn’t matter; the kids come in, inevitably in twos, and they comment.
“Dude, it’s Mr. Steel! Pooping!”
“You know I can hear you, right?” I say.
“You heard that?” they ask.

#

26 men and 8 women, all members of the 1st Naval Construction Battalion—Navy SeaBees—waited on the south end of the base for a patrol briefing. Their commander, a young Navy Looey named Edward Teach walked out of the Marine briefing room and towards the group of SeaBees. He stopped some distance away from the sailors and lit his pipe so that his head was briefly consumed in smoke. He spent moments on that pipe—not magical moments—just normal ones. But they were important ones. As he finished his ritual lighting, he did not speak. He did not say “Shiver me timbers!” or anything else that pirates supposedly say, for before the words could come out of his mouth, a bullet-shaped, green thing spat from a tube 1.2 miles away. The men and women of the First NCB heard the thunk of the first mortar and the thunk of the next 16 shells being launched from their tubes. Ol’ Blackbeard, the SeaBees called him, though Lieutenant Teach was far to engrossed in his own world to understand the reference—ol’ Blackbeard shuffled his feet and smoked his pipe and almost spoke. Two times he almost spoke before the mortars dropped in the middle of the briefing, which blew them all away—except Teach, who shit himself.

#

The bathroom can, indeed, be a very scary place. On this day, I walk into the bathroom, and a boy is furiously washing his face. I ask him if he is okay. He says it’s nothing; just that someone smacked him in the face and now he is trying to clean his face so that he doesn’t get any STDs.

“Someone hit you?” I say.
“With a condom,” he says.
“Oh my God,” I say, and I try to keep my anger and my anxiety in check.
“It’s no big deal,” he says. I ask him to tell me what happened and if he has told the principal.
“We were walking and someone smacked me with a condom,” he says. “Mr. Sterling is talking with him now.”
“And you?” I ask. “You’re okay?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Not a scratch. Just worried about STDs.” I look at him and he gets my confusion. He pulls something from his pocket. It is the condom, still in its wrapper.

#

People fucked in the latrines. It just happened. It was the only door with a lock—we all knew that. So when two US Marines on security detail for the SeaBees, Lance Corporal Gene McKnead and Private First Class Nicole Westerland, went into the latrines, no one blinked an eye—or they wouldn’t have if anyone had witnessed them. They went in there, him to do his business, and her to do his business, and he had his pants around his ankles when the mortars landed. For the sake of brevity, they chose to leave their flak vests on, but they definitely got caught with his pants down. First time in history, someone said, that a medic had to treat a sucking dick wound. Or they would have said that if anyone had found them before the sun started rotting their flesh.

#

Every year, after lessons on paragraph writing and lessons on expository essays, I teach a bit of creative writing. I transition from theses and essay maps to the use of description to setup a mystery story, and we lumber through exercises on how to write clues and how to introduce suspects and how to reveal endings, and then they begin to write. What comes from Aubrey is something like this:

A girl walks across a floor, silently stepping over the wooden planks, each creak threatening to give her away as she tries to escape her parents’ grasp. She reaches out to the handle and turns it silently, afraid that the very motion of her hand will give away her presence. She opens the door, away from her, and begins to place one foot into the darkened hallway. She pauses, takes one last look around, and then is gone.

In my essay on mystery stories, I am going to tell you all kinds of things about my main character, Aubrey. First, I am going to tell you how Aubrey got away from her house that night. Next, I am going to explain the clues that you need in order to get all the information you need to solve this mystery. Then, when all is lost, I will explain how the detective comes to her rescue. Finally, I will wrap it all up.

When I ask her about this second paragraph, with its precise thesis and essay map—middle school style—and why she decided to divert her attention away from the incredible story that was unfolding at the beginning, she just stares at me. Her face becomes flushed, and I can see her eyes begin to well up. “But Mr. Steel,” she begins to sob, and I want to sob back. She breathes at me—middle-schoolers can do that—and the tears get sucked back into her eyes because she sees me want to cry. Now she is an annoyed cop calming the suicidal jumper. Her eyes stop welling, and instead, her concern might as well have said Look here, dumb-ass. Go ahead and jump. Go for it, you selfish prick. But first, you are going to tell me what the fuck to do for a goddamn A in this class.
“With essays, Mr. Silly,” she says. “You told us to introduce our writing with ‘First, next, then, last!’ I wrote it just like you said!”

#

I was on the Base Reactionary Force, so I got there first—besides the SeaBees and mortars, I mean. When I first came upon the scene, the medic in my truck, Corporal Sandra Plath, threw the door open as Baker slowed the Humvee Gun Truck down. He raced after her, and from the gunner’s hatch, I heard Ortiz swing the .50 caliber M2 Browning to the rear.

“Damn, that bitch is fine.”
“Ortiz,” I said, “don’t be a pig.”
“What, Sergeant? You want I should treat her like some Frida Kahlo painting?”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“You’re the uncultured swine, Sergeant.”
Plath came back to the truck to grab extra supplies moments later. Ortiz yelled to her.
“Plath! You’re prettier than a thorn necklace!” Plath smiled.
“Not the time, but thanks.”
“All I am saying is that you’re a damn fine woman, Doc.” I hit Ortiz on the leg.
“What Sergeant?” Ortiz said. “Thorn necklaces and hummingbirds: I did it just like you said!”

#

Link Classical Academy is the kind of place in which the mediocre become good. A few even become very good. And the great—they become good too. At our school, we teach future doctors and lawyers and rocket scientists, and our students have gone on to become senators and congressmen, doctors and Yale Divinity School graduates, and Harvard Medical School attendees. One even became Miss America, and after that, she became a porn star. She is doing quite well, from what Sterling tells us. She doesn’t come to visit us much, which I understand. On Tuesdays in October, we have Career Days; someone keeps booking her. Each Wednesday in October, Sterling opens the morning announcements with a disappointed sigh, saying that she “stiffed us.” When his mother, Assistant Principal Mrs. Sterling says, “That’s what she said,” Mr. Sterling glances up from his notes and says, “Who?”

Mr. Sterling has a picture in his office that she sent the school, with her winking and blowing a kiss to the camera. It is usually on his desk next to a box of tissues, and I am convinced that he has no idea about the connection between the two objects.

LCA is rigorous, and most go on to do great things, such as sit on the desk in Mr. Sterling’s office. Mr. Sterling’s philosophy is that every student deserves a chance to become good at something, and not all students can become Miss Americas—or work in the adult media industry, as much as he wants them to. So for those students who do not pass the standardized tests each year, a unique opportunity is presented: Cleaning Olympics. They are taught how to sweep and mop and dust and polish and vacuum, all because Sterling’s rationale is that someone has to take out the trash. Our school prides itself on the resources that they provide to the students, whether it is in teaching them how to dissect information or how to switch on a vacuum. I am not even going to make a joke about how much that must suck. Cleaning Olympics runs from the beginning of the school year until the manners competition in November when they learn how to flip burgers. These are the kids who fail the tests. The ones who score advanced get to learn how to eat them with a fork.

Obviously, those who eat the burgers don’t actually flip them.

#

“Goddamn, Steel. You are going to get into trouble with that girl.”
“You should have seen her, Smoke,” I said. “She dug into some bloody shit today.”
“She’s a mother-fuckin’ fine-ass medic, Smoke,” Ortiz said. Baker said nothing.
“Yeah, well, leave her alone. She’s toast.” I handed my platoon sergeant a form I had finished filling out.
“You want this, Smoke?” He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. “I put her in for an ARCOM with a V,” I said. “With your support, I think she could get a Bronze Star.” My platoon sergeant, Danny Milosz—Smoke—took the paper from my hand and tore it in half.
“She going up for an Article 15, Steel.”
“But you should have seen her, Smoke.”
“It doesn’t matter. If the commander gets his way, she’ll be flipping burgers in a month.”

#

On Fridays, we have fun. I let my students take their spelling tests in dry-erase markers on their desks. I make the spelling words rhyme, and then they write the word on the desk. I walk around the room and write tick marks on my grading sheet, and they erase the words with Clorox wipes. They have a little bit of fun; the desks get clean, and I get to sing and act like a British arse, and sometimes, I try to rap a bit with them.

My principal walks in last week as I freestyle the following phrases:
A to the B and the C and D,
I said, hooked on phonics worked for me!
If you’re doin’ somethin’ bad, I’ll ask you to be stoppin’ it
And if you do it again, I’ll say, “Please do the OPPOSITE.”

The students have given me my own rapper name: R. E. Cent, wherein the C looks like the “¢” sign. I absolutely know that they are making fun of me, and I absolutely do not mind. Better that they laugh at me than at each other. The latter kills me, and sometimes, it kills them—but that story another time.

So my principal walks in to my room and watches me rap the words. Had I known he was there, I would have said “opposite” in a non-rapperish way. I am a little embarrassed when I turn around. He frowns as my kids write their words on their desks, and he asks me to step in the hall.
Shirley, my rapper days are numbered. Sterling speaks.

“Mr. Steel,” he says, as he strokes his goatee. He spends a lot of time stroking that facial hair, most of it while examining the picture of Miss PornTube on his desk. His beard-stroking has become a staple in the school, and I honestly wouldn’t know what I would do without this. I bet ol’ Blackbeard stroked his own black beard.

“Mr. Steel,” he says, “I think that, while ‘The Rapping Rhymes’ (he actually says “The Rapping Rhymes”—I’m telling you—you can’t make this shit up) are a fun tool, I don’t think it is such a good idea to write words on the desks.”


“Okay,” I say. “They will clean them up.”
“Oh no,” he harrumphs—his stroking increases in its rigor. “That’s not the problem.” I try to talk, but he holds up his hand, and then moves it back to his beard for continued—and rigorous—stroking.
“The problem,” he strokes, “is that these kids won’t transfer their learning from dry erase markers to pencils as they write.” I almost laugh. Almost.
“Really?” I say.
“Well,” he says. “You are really doing them a disservice as they write their words with dry-erase markers.”
“Uh...okay,” I say. “No dry erase markers.”
“But ‘The Rapping Rhymes,’” he says, “that’s cool, homie.”

#

The last time that Sandra Plath and I spoke, we rapped “The Rapping Rhymes.” Well, we sang—terribly—but connecting that last vignette to this with “The Rapping Rhymes” needed to happen. So we rapped. And we laughed that night. A lot. And after that, I went to sleep. And after that, she blew her brains onto the roof of the tower.

#

And then there are the hall passes. I hate these things. I have a phone hall-pass, a drinking fountain hall-pass, and a restroom hall-pass, all given to me by my administration so that we can ensure that students are doing the “right thing.” But even though there are three hall-passes, the school policy is that only one student can be out of the room at a time, so I don’t really know why I have more than one hall-pass.

Today, I don’t notice a student standing at the place where I keep my passes. He stands there as I talk to a group of English students about their topic. A few minutes before, he had asked to go use the pass, but he hadn’t left yet.

“Mr. Steel?” he says. “I have to go to the copier.”
“Go,” I say. “It’s right there.” I point in the direction of the copier, which is placed just outside my room.
“Which pass do I take?”
“You know, I’m not sure.”

We laugh, and after that, no one goes to sleep. And after that, no one blows their brains on the roof of a tower.
Instead, it leads to the students in my homeroom class making me even more hall-passes—for every occasion that they can think of: sink hall-pass, copy hall-pass, out-in-the-hall-for-a-sec hall-pass, microwave hall-pass, looking-wistfully-out-the-window hall-pass, and just in case, a pooping hall-pass. But I don’t know why they made that last one: I am sure I will never use it.

#

The day after Plath shot herself, which was a day after the base declared a lockdown because they couldn’t find two Marines, a young lieutenant—ol’ Blackbeard—clenched his butt cheeks together. Tried all of the latrine doors. All were locked, and the smell coming from them was horrendous. A knock confirmed their use—except the last one. He could tell someone was in there—too much sun always betrays the shitters, but no one answered. He knocked again. Under his breath, Lieutenant Teach cursed and went to shit someplace else. After relaxing his bowels and returning to his room, he carefully folded the ends of the toilet paper and placed the roll above his bunk. He went back to the occupied latrine and shimmied the lock. A man and a woman who had been engaging in what Blackbeard would later call “oral copulation” fell onto the sand. Her head was still in his crotch, and when they rolled her over to begin the job of packing and zipping and tagging and shipping, his penis came off with a popping sound and dangled from the woman’s mouth. The new medic, Private First Class Maria Melendez, walked near me.

“A damn shame,” she said.
“I suppose it is.” She looked out towards the guard towers.
“A real damn shame,” she said, and she put on her latex gloves and dug right in.


Matthew Sterner-Neely is a profoundly progressive person of faith who loves teaching children’s literature and composition at Pueblo Community College in Pueblo, Colorado.  His favorite activities include discussing how to dismantle the patriarchal hegemony, choreographing tap and ballet numbers, and joining his children and his partner for tea in the middle of the living room floor.  He is a veteran of the US Army, and served from 1994-2004, with a final stint in Iraq.  He is currently enthusiastic about studying gender and queer theory applied to pop-culture and children’s literature and the ways in which each influences the other.  His work can be found in PilgrimageDirty ChaiThe Open Face SandwichGambling the Aisle, and Tempered Steel, the literary journal of Colorado State University-Pueblo. In addition, one of his stories was recognized as a top-25 award-winner of Glimmer Train’s July 2014 Very Short Fiction Award. “Entertaining Angels” is the first story in a larger work titled The End of Fear. This unpublished novel-in-stories follows a soldier with PTSD who witnesses his best friend killed in Iraq. Upon returning home, he is convinced that he has died as well. Although fictional, “Entertaining Angels” is informed by my former life as a soldier and my current life as a teacher, both of which have shaped who I am as a writer and who I am as a human. I found my humanity in the faces of the people I have encountered—American soldiers, Iraqis, and middle school students.  I have had the privilege of entertaining angels, and now, I have the privilege of sharing those experiences in this story.

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