The Lesson

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

Ever had an annoying moocher who won't leave you alone? Bob decides it's time to teach Luther Gracken a lesson.

This stoy will be included in a frame-story collection I'm working on.

The Lesson


Stunned, Bob opened his fingers, dropping the receiver onto the hook. He slumped back into his chair, the clock on the wall showing two, and watched the hands—the gentle twirl of thin seconds and the creeping jerk of long minutes—as they closed like scissors on two eleven.

“Gracken.” He snorted. “Luther Gracken.”

Weary with expectation, he rolled his chair away from the desk, stood up, and walked out of his study. Sheila just wouldn’t understand. She was too sociable. She hadn’t known Gracken for the many years that Bob had known him.

“Who was that on the phone?” she called from the living room.

“Do you remember Luther Gracken, from college?”

Her voice drifted out of the living room and into the kitchen. “Oh, yeah, I remember him. Overgrown lost puppy, that the one?”

“Hm. . .” Bob groaned. He passed the spare bedroom on his way down the hall, but couldn’t bear to look in. Gracken was coming in two hours, less than two hours. He meant to stay in town for several days. He would sit on the couch in the living room—his luggage piled at the door, and his hat held in his chubby paws—and talk dolefully about motels with their lumpy beds and worn carpets and shower heads that drip rather than flood, all for too much money. He would bemoan the greasy food—as if grease had ever mattered to him—and surly service at the diners by the motels and go on again about the motels.

He would do this until Bob invited him to stay in the spare bedroom and enjoy Sheila’s cooking. Through all of this, Sheila would think only of pleasing Gracken, of making him comfortable.

“Is he going to stay?” she asked from the kitchen.

“He didn’t say, but I’m sure he will.”

How could he save himself? He had known Gracken since grade school. The fifth grade it was when the Gracken family rolled into Water City, wearing cowboy clothes and boots that they had bought back east, snapping out “howdy” to everyone they met the way that a New York cabbie would say it. Luther Gracken, the family’s only child, latched onto Bob from the first. His classmates watched from afar, mixing empathy for his suffering with glee over their corresponding lack of suffering.

The elementary school years crawled into middle school years and then high school years in the fashion of a tick climbing up a leg, past the stomach, and onto the head. Gracken’s hold on Bob grew.

To escape, he joined a backpacking club, hiked into the wilderness, only to find Gracken sitting on a rock near the highway overlook, drinking a bottle of orange soda and waving as the group marched by. When Bob got his first car, he drove dates out to ever more remote spots to watch sunsets, meteors, and Gracken working his way up from his blanket beside a boombox and worming over to “share,” as he called it, in the potato chips that Bob brought for his girlfriend. Their senior English teacher, in a discussion of symbols in literature, asked the students to name an animal that they would choose to represent them in a story. Bob blurted out “shark,” explaining that he knew the feeling of a remora at his back.

He went to an eastern college, and lo! Gracken appeared, announcing his plans to attend the same. Even though Bob had a roommate (thanks be to God), Gracken lived the next four years in Bob’s room. He occupied Bob’s easy chair, the one piece of civilized furniture in the dorm room, from the first, and as the semesters passed, Gracken’s bulk flattened the stuffing, broke the springs, and split the seams until the character of the chair merged with that of Gracken. Even when he was not in the room, his chair was.

Shelia emerged from the kitchen on the way to the living room. “Should I pick up some spaghetti noodles? He likes spaghetti, doesn’t he?”

“He likes whatever we have.”

While she rummaged in the piano bench, she told him to be nice, using the same voice his mother had used to say the same thing.

Bob had tried to disappear after college, had moved back to the west, to the desert, yet, where Gracken belonged as much as a thorn bush would belong sprouting up three feet south of the pitcher’s mound before the opening game, but Gracken had found him.

On the phone, he praised their school’s alumni office, that tissue of guilt that troubled Bob year by year to send money—not for the privilege of taking classes, as he and his parents had spent enough for that, but rather to be a member in good standing of the alumni association. They could not threaten his diploma, as it already had been bought and was hanging on the wall next to the clock, so instead, they were handing out his particulars to all and sundry who claimed membership.

Gracken bragged that he used the name of Pete Shayles, a classmate of theirs who always sent his pledges in, since Gracken never bothered to send one of his own. Gracken had tracked Bob down without the slightest cost to himself. He used the phone in his dentist’s office so as not to pay the toll. And so, he was lurching in his battered Cadillac toward Bob’s house, having driven two states out of his route selling his company’s line of tongue depressors to doctors.

Peering through the door into the living room, he saw Sheila gathering up her music books from inside the bench and packing them into her bag.

She looked up at him. “Bob, what’s wrong?”

“He’s just like a big marshmallow, a big marshmallow softening into a lump on the ground where somebody dropped it, and anybody who touches it just gets sticky goo on his fingers.”

She glared, but he left what he had said floating about unchased.

“Don’t you be mean to him.”

He nodded, frowning.

“At least entertain him till I get back from the lesson.” She walked around him and headed to the door, draping her bag over her shoulder. “I’ll take over from there.”

“Who’s your student today?” Bob’s mouth asked, his mind searching for some way to save himself from Gracken.

“It’s Billy Marshall.” She opened the door. “He’s just learning his scales.”

“Good luck.”

She waved and shut the door. He pictured Billy Marshall, a five-year-old boy he had seen at one of the recitals that she put on. His mother had dreams of the next van Cliburn.

Sheila popped into Bob’s reverie, saying, “five years old. . . lesson. . . just learning. . . entertain. . .I’ll take over from there” over and over.

He smiled, knowing just what he would do.


When four o’clock ticked in, it found Bob by the door in anticipation, a grim smile held on his face. Rather than sitting glumly in the center of the couch drinking a glass of water instead of the sherry that he would have wanted in that case, he paced the tile just inside, stopping at every sound to look out the windows to the right or left.

The squeak of his shoes on the slick floor, the immaculately polished floor, the tap of his heels, his own anxious breathing reminded him of the last time Gracken rolled in to visit him.

Bob and his parents had sat on the patio of the finest café in the city on the fine day in May—the day that he was graduated—sitting there with his black robe and gold cords neatly folded next to him, awaiting the meal.

Gracken and his family dangled out of the dying Cadillac as it came squealing and knocking and pinging into the parking lot, bounced over the curb, and gored the base of the patio with the steerhorn hood ornament and docked directly in front of Bob. The engine dieseled for a moment, then died.

Silence fell on the restaurant. From down the street, the beep, beep, beep of a backing garbage truck drifted by.

Three doors flopped open, and the Gracken family, Momma Gracken, Papa Gracken, and Big Boy Gracken—still in his robe, but with no gold cords, decorated as he was only by a noosed rubber chicken suspended from his neck—burst forth.

That was the last time Gracken had driven up in his car to see Bob, and now, he could feel the same sensations. This time would be different, though. This time, the Gracken family would not be there, trying to climb over the railing, realizing that they were too fat, and ramming through the gate to one side, setting off an alarm and drawing swarms of hand-wringing waiters. This time, Bob would be in control, would shock even Gracken, would drive him away forever.

This time, it actually was Gracken at the door, having just squealed and knocked and pinged up in the Cadillac and burst forth and pressed the bell—it was no longer only his upwelling memories and daydreams.

The moment had come.

* * *

Bob swung open the door and thrust his hand forward, even though Gracken’s were burdened with luggage. Bob stepped back and made a drawing motion. Gracken, for the first time in all the years he had known him, said nothing.

Bob stepped inside. “Put ’er there, old bean.”

He stared blankly, then dropped his luggage on the tile and took Bob’s hand into his own, giving, as always, his damp-sponge shake.

“Bob, my good buddy,” Gracken said, his nature reasserting itself, “you won’t believe the trip—”

“Well, you’re here now. Come plant yourself on the couch.”

He slapped Gracken on the back and shoved the man into the living room. The act was working. He had never been bold enough before; Gracken always led the scenes, but this time, Bob made the first move and said the first words and marveled to himself that he hadn’t done this so many years before.

Gracken descended onto the couch and pulled his hat from his head. He actually spun the hat in the air.

“Drink a beer with me,” Bob roared with a smirk on his face, peering around the wall, his head just inside the living room. Gracken nodded, and the strands of hair combed over the top of his head flopped forward into his eyes. His hand swept up, met his tongue, and drew back the hair to flatten it on top of his head again.

Bob offered the beer with a shiver of memory. Gracken squished and slavered through life, and with beer, he squished and slavered all the more, adding loud belches. But Bob wanted to be the perfect host while working his way through his act, so he offered Gracken beer. He did want Gracken in shape to drive—not good shape, since Gracken was never in good shape to drive—when the shock became too much and forced him to fly up from the couch and run out the door, grabbing his luggage on the way. He wanted Gracken to drive away at that moment, wanted him sober enough to drive far away. To that end, he had rushed out to the store and bought beers, one of the weak American brands that Gracken loved, for the bottles and fake beers for the liquid, opened the real beers and poured them down his sink, opened the fakes and poured them into the first set of bottles, and recapped each bottle once refilled.

He spun away from the door of the living room, skittered into the kitchen, and pulled open the freezer. He gathered up two bottles and clanked them down on the counter. After quartering a lime, he grabbed the dripping pieces in one hand and the bottles in the other and trotted back to the living room door.

Poking the hand with the beers into the room and clinking the bottles, he smiled and strode in, sat down in a chair opposite the couch, rammed one of the limes into one of the bottles, spraying lime juice across the coffee table in between, and held out the newly fruited bottle.

Gracken looked down at the drops of lime juice soaking into the magazines on the table top in a way he had never looked at the many stains of coffee and beer he had made in Bob’s room in college, up at the beer held out in the air above the table, and back down at the table.

Bob shook a bottle, making it fizz out a little of the limey beer down to mix with the lime juice and magazine ink. Gracken took the bottle and hid it behind his hat.

“Do you plan to stay long?” Bob grinned.

That was an invitation for Gracken to reassert his usual character, and the stock of motel-bed and surly-waiter complaints sprouted, but Bob quickly weeded through the growing mood that showed on Gracken’s face.

“You could stay here, of course.”

Gracken took a sip (yes, a sip) from his beer and sat it down on a coaster (yes, a coaster) on the table.

“You might have to join me nights, though,” Bob continued, suppressing a cackle, “since Sheila uses the guest room from time to time. . . .”

Gracken turned his hat with his fingers. “So,” he asked, his old pleasantly-worming self coming out, “what is it that she does? I remember something about her playing the piano in college.”

“Oh, she’s taken up a different line. She’s a sex therapist now.”

Gracken’s mouth dropped open, then politely snapped shut. “I didn’t know she took psychology.”

“She didn’t. There’s really no schooling required for what she does. It’s actually just doing what comes naturally.”

Gracken’s hat spun furiously. “You don’t mean—”

“Oh, yes, I do mean. She worked with her last ‘client’ right over there on the piano bench.”

Bob took a long pull from his bottle. Gracken stared down at his spinning hat.

“Sometimes she performs in front of crowds. She goes through her own routine, then takes requests.”

The hat fell to the floor, but Gracken’s fingers kept working. He jumped up with a start when the door opened and spun around to watch Sheila coming in. His fingers slowed to a stop. Sheila worked her way around the pile of luggage at the door and walked into the living room. She held out her hand to Gracken. He took it with far less energy than his usual weak effort.

“You name is Luther, right?” she asked. Gracken slowly nodded. “You boys all right in here—can I get you anything?”

“No, no.” Bob pointed at the beers. “I’ve got ‘G’ here all taken care of. Sit, let’s chat.”

She took back her hand and sat down a little left of the middle of the couch. Bob resumed his chair. Gracken wedged himself against the couch’s right arm, his hat on the floor in front of his old spot.

“Tell ‘G’ here where you’ve been.” Bob winked at Gracken.

“Just my lesson with Billy Marshall.” She turned herself on the couch to look at Gracken. “He’s so cute.”

“How old is he, anyway?” Bob fished.

“Just five years old.”

Gracken didn’t belch, and he didn’t cough, but what he did was like unto both.

“You work with boys.” He gulped.

“Sure. It’s best to start them out early. Billy’s actually a little young. I prefer to begin when they’re six—”

“I didn’t realize they could,” Gracken interrupted, his mouth left hanging open after all the words fell out.

“Well, of course, they’re limited. They have trouble with the chords—”

“Cords!” Gracken blurted. His mouth held open for a moment longer, then flapped shut.

“I usually focus on the basic movements,” she continued after recovering herself from his reaction, “fingering in particular.”

“Naturally.” Gracken loosened his tie that was already loose.

“I most often prefer boys. At that age, they’re less worried about being above it all than the girls are.”

“You work with girls?”

“Of course,” Sheila answered and laughed. “Why not?”

Gracken moved to say something, many things probably, but no sound came.

“Oh, I see, you’re thinking of Œdipus and Electra, mother image and father image. Yes, sometimes the girls feel threatened by this other woman ‘mothering’ them, but we usually work through that.”

The three sat silently for a moment. Bob suppressed a giggle, knowing that each one had to be thinking an entirely different set of thoughts.

“I don’t know which I prefer, children or adults. You see, children, boys in particular, have such enthusiasm, but on the other hand, the emotional maturity of adults is refreshing. There’s simply so much that doesn’t make sense until one has lived some.”

Gracken snapped up his hat and began spinning it again. Bob watched this for a moment, calculating the pressure still needed.

“Tell ‘G’ about performing—he’s amazed you do it in front of crowds.”

“Nothing big really,” she answered modestly. “Just a small audience, fifty people maybe.”

“How can you do that?” Gracken squeaked.

“The first few times were hard, but after a while, it’s easy, especially when the audience gets excited by the performance.”

Bob saw Gracken, and this was the first time that he had seen him in quite this way, as a coiled spring.

“Why don’t you show us something?” Bob asked.

“Sure.” She stood and stepped over to the piano bench. “I could do something for you—Luther, come on over here—you know how, yes?”

Gracken jumped up and rammed his hat down on his head.

“No, no thank you!” he roared, racing—yes, racing, even with his bulk—over to the door and grabbing up his bags and throwing open the door and flying out, slamming the door behind him.

Sheila flashed a shocked look at Bob.

The Cadillac choked to life and knocked and pinged its way out of the driveway and down the street.

“What got into him?”

“It’s hard to say,” Bob answered placidly, “it’s hard to say.”

Submitted: August 30, 2015

© Copyright 2022 Greg Camp. All rights reserved.

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