Traditionally, Old Philadelphians keep a low profile. They associate with one another and leave life as discreetly as they have lived it. So Philly Prep English teacher Amanda Pepper, who thinks her only current problems are keeping her well-meaning family from hijacking her wedding, is understandably stunned to discover a perfect specimen of the species dying at the foot of the school’s marble staircase.
It is anybody’s guess what led to Tomas Severin’s apparent fall and, indeed, why he was in the building in the first place. More questions arise when Amanda enters her otherwise empty classroom and finds a take-out cup of herbal tea laced with the party drug her students call roofies. Why would a middle-aged Philadelphian have a date-rape drug in his tea? Why does he have Amanda’s name scribbled in his pocket notebook?
Hired by a member of the Severin family household, Amanda and her fiancé, C.K. Mackenzie, realize that many people felt their lives would improve if Tom’s life ended–-making it seemingly impossible to determine who’d been harassing Severin with threatening phone calls. Tom Severin leaves behind angry ex-wives, one recently dropped fiancée, and the current (about to be exed) Mrs. Tomas Severin. As secrets are unearthed, and cruelties old and new revealed, it’s apparent that the end of Tom is just the beginning of the grief he caused.
When the officer and technicians were all gone, and classes were about to resume—not a prospect I relished—I returned to the auditorium. The music teacher, Veronica Wenda, a woman who always looked shocked at where her melodic dreams had led her, gamely poised her two hands in the position of a conductor, and said, “And next, ‘Tea for Two,’ which was such a hit in No, No, Nanette.”
The students were beyond hooting and hissing. They were nearly as comatose as Mr. Severin had been. Lunch followed by Havermeyer followed by Operetta’s Greatest Hits combined with Indian summer had just about done them in.
I caught Veronica’s attention and whispered that it would be all right for students to return to their scheduled classes now. She nearly wept with relief.
After several more minutes of predictable delaying tactics and honest questions such as which class were they to go to, I shepherded my flock out and up to my classroom. The odds were heavily stacked against accomplishing anything resembling teaching, but if we could simply keep the peace until the day ended, I’d consider it a win.
My thoughts about Steinbeck, so dramatically interrupted by Tomas Severin, had concerned East of Eden, which the seniors had been reading and enjoying, despite their usual objections to long books. We’d had a fine and thoughtful discussion based on a quote from the novel:
“…I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror.”
I thought of that quote now, and the animated and heated debate we’d had about the meaning of evil, of what shaped a man and determined his kindness or malevolence. I’d been thinking about those words when I stumbled over Tomas Severin. Now, the words and idea belonged to him, and I considered the rest of the quote, which suggests that a person should choose his course of action so that his dying “brings no pleasure to the world.”
May it be so, I said of the stranger.
We had moved on in class to another discussion based on the inequities between the Cain and Abel-like sons, and I’d assigned a nature-nurture essay, due today.
The official question had been whether people were born programmed to be the “good son,” whether who you became was a matter of luck and life events, or whether roles were assigned within the family and then became the person’s personality. Or, of course, all of the above.
I’d have thought they would try to use the morning’s events as an excuse to talk about anything but the assignment. I would have understood. But the Steinbeck novel had hit a lot of hot buttons, which shouldn’t have surprised me given that we were a school designed for young adults who couldn’t function satisfactorily in the larger school system. These were kids who’d been in trouble in some way, hadn’t performed as desired, children who were not fulfilling their parents’ dreams and ambitions. They were more than ready to air their not very buried sense of being treated unfairly, or of being assigned—or thinking they were—the role as the family goof-off or worse, the bad child. I wondered if they ever had a chance to talk about this at home. Maybe their papers would speak for them—if their parents read their work.
We talked through the remainder of the period, I collected their papers, and the day was done.
I didn’t see it until then, until I went to the window for a literal breather before I set out for my second job at the PI firm. That’s when I spotted a Styrofoam cup, the sort used for take-out coffee, on the sill.
An innocuous object, yes. Except that there was no logical reason for that cup to be in my classroom.
I had unlocked my office door that morning onto a room free of any take-out cups. I hadn’t brought any in with me, nor had any student broken the rules and come to class with food or drink.
That brought us to the point where we all trooped downstairs—every single teacher and student—for the god-awful assembly.
And then the return to the classroom, en masse, and not a one of us carrying coffee that time, either.
And yet, there it was on my windowsill.
Only one person I knew of had been upstairs while I was not, and he was in the hospital now, fighting for his life.
I looked at the cup, afraid to lift it, although Styrofoam didn’t seem the sort of material that would hold fingerprints. There wasn’t much left inside—an inch or so. I bent over and sniffed. Not coffee. It had a faintly flowery scent, and it was pale. Herbal tea.
Tomas Severin, drinking tea in my classroom. I imagined him coming upstairs, checking his watch as no one was here, then coming into my room because it was the closest to the staircase. I pictured him looking out my window at the square.
Biding his time, or on the lookout for someone?
And then—something interrupted him and made him forget his tea, leave it behind.
A lot of information from a take-out cup except how a man got from drinking from it to lying, near death, at the bottom of the stairs and why he was here in the first place.