The Subtle Teachings of Mr. Rifa

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Mr. Rifa, a hapless english teacher, re-examines his life when he finds himself in the hospital after taking a tumble.

Submitted: July 30, 2012

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 30, 2012






I woke up, sun in my eyes, drowsy as hell, and saw my wife sitting by the foot of my bed, reading a magazine, the top of her curly red hair peeking over the spine of it. Well, from the looks of the base, the bed isn’t mine. Got my socks on but, oh, dear God. My right leg is in a cast. I look at my wife, Angelina. She sets down her magazine and looks up at me. She’s not mad at me, I’d be able to tell. Oh, the crookedness of that smile. I know that one. I had a slip.

But where the hell did I have it?

“It was the fly?” I cringed. “Did I really fall in the classroom in front of all of them?”

“What did you expect Harry?”

I had almost forgotten how marvelous she looked, even when she would lightly scorn me. She’s wearing that flower dress I like with the faded blue hoody. Must be Tuesday. I slept through the weekend?

God, my head hurts.

“It was . . . A matter of principle.”

“Principle? You had them all freaked out.”

“I was proving a point. You always have to finish what you start. Where would we be if mark twain hadn’t finished Tom sawyer, if Melville never finished Moby Dick?”

“Speaking of dicks . . .”

“Walked right into that one, didn’t I?”

“Yes, dear. How’s your head?”

“Another dick joke?”

“No, jerk, your cra-ni-um.”

“Feels like silly putty, I feel a knot.”

“Lucky that thing didn’t crack in two. The linoleum split.”

“Angie, who brought me here?”

“Mark Tory.”

“Mark Tory. Gave him a C minus. He’s been holding back. That kid can’t write cursive to save his life.”

“Willing to jump back into work already?”

“Not so much. That’s not like him. Thought he hated me.”

“He was worried about you, Harry. He called me on your cell, said that all the other kids picked you up, stuffed you into his car and carted you to the hospital down the street.”

Need to sit up, ow, my back.


“Here, let me help.”

Mmmmmm, her hair smells like raspberry’s. Last time I made love to her was four weeks ago. Been through some rocky stuff ever since the miscarriage.

Oh, look at those gigantic blue eyes. I remember those alright.

“Now will you stop trying to do everything by yourself? Will you try not to fix everything all the time?”

“It’s my nature,” I grunt.

“Your nature is up for review, genius. I mean, c’mon, Harry, why the hell would you spend all that trouble trying to kill one damn fly?”



Chap 2


I’ve tried teaching first graders, yikes. Can’t handle those rugrats. Hated the idea of teaching college, the variety of ages throw me off. So many damn adults coming back to school, middle age too. Feels like I need to split myself into three people; one for the fresh kids, one for the rising artists and one for the hard of hearing. No thank you. Been there and done that.

High school’s better.

Less shit I have to take.

Of course, teaching these teens how to write has been the best thing for me really. My class, room 303, isn’t a hard class. An easy credit down to the letter. But, because so many think they can take it and slack off; my drive to teach disappears.

I found a much better way to deal with my 17 lucky students; be unpredictable, they won’t know what hit ‘em.

On the first day of class, I didn’t say a word. I posted signs all over the classroom that said no talking. Each kid, tall, short, black, white, male, female were instantly confused. Nevertheless, they shrugged and sat down. For the entire hour, I was combing through pages of my favorite book To kill a mockingbird. I’d sneak a peek at them now and again. Out of 17, 13 were reading novels, one was sound asleep and the other three were carving stuff in their desks.

When the bell rang, I closed the book and came to the front of my desk.

They stopped gathering their things and sat back down. An involuntary reflex, I love it.

“Class,” I said, as if I was beginning the lesson. “Think of this as a social experiment. I know now that 13 of you are serious about writing, the rest of you I’ll just have to work on. This will be the only time that the class is silent. I just wanted to give you one bad day. Now that you’ve seen it, a bit of discipline, I trust you won’t want to give me a reason to do it again.”

“Fine with me!” came a voice from the back. Mark Tory, the first day.

“That’s a minus 10,” I said as I pulled a pencil from my ear and marked it in my notepad.

“For what?” Mark again.

“Another minus 10. You now have a B for the first day. Because, Mark, I expressed a rule for today that there will be no talking. A simple rule. You don’t follow the rules, you don’t pass this class. Clear?”

“That’s bogus.” Mark said.

“No, That’s a minus 10,” I said.



Chap 3



“Harry Rifa, the fly was not your great white whale. It was a fly. Like many things, you could’ve just let it go.” Angela is closer, trying to play mother, feeding me applesauce. It’s Wednesday.

“I’m not a quitter.”

“Harry, you’ve quit plenty of times. Harry, It’s human nature. Harry, It’s just ridiculous.”

“Call me Ishmael.” I smirk.

She slaps me on the knee, a good one. I’m startled as hell. Thought she was going for my bad leg.

Character doubts. Sheesh. I should know better. She is a strong woman, but not cruel. From the beginning of that beautiful moment when we thought we were having a baby to the bloody mess that followed, on my writing chair no less, she cried only a few days, then toughened up. I was right there with her, and we’ve found sex unneeded for fear of another phantom baby.

“Nathaniel,” I whisper.

She spills a gob of applesauce on my gown. Knew that was coming.


“That’s what I was going to name him. Nathaniel. Not Michael. Maybe it was a bad omen just thinking it.”

She sets the applesauce down on the chair next to her, wiping up the mess she made on me. “Why would you think that?”

“Nathaniel Hawthorne was a brilliant man, great writer. One of my favorite writers. But that brilliance only carried him so far. Not far enough. Poor bastard. If I hadn’t been silently thinking that name to myself, would our boy still be alive?”

“If you wanted to name him that, why didn’t you say so. Names don’t carry curses. They’re not inherited or genetic, you know this. You’re just being stupid.”

“Perhaps even . . . An idiot?  Worthy of Dostoevsky?”

“Can you think of anything else but writing?”

“Hard not to. All the greats started sober, ended either drunk or dead. I’m still struggling with the great American novel. Five years for fifty pages of garbage that I can’t continue. Hmph. What a writer I turned out to be.”

She’s eating some of my applesauce now.

“Hey,” I say, “That’s mine.”

“Sorry, got hungry while you were pining away for your lost art. ‘Oh muse, how dreadful you are to leave me. Come hither.’ Give me a break.” She stirs the last bit of sauce into the spoon as she holds it up to her mouth. “You’re already a writer. The point is not to write but to have written.”

She shovels it in; the sauce as well as her wisdom.



Chap 4


“Today, we’ll start with Thomas Jefferson.”

“This ain’t no history class,” Charles says.

I place my glasses carefully over a copy of Charles Dicken’s immortal classic, A Christmas Carol. It’s the middle of July. They notice.

I stand.

“On the contrary, this is about writers who changed history. Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence. A declaration which clearly spat on the nefarious king George. Thomas was angry, driven, inspired to write that piece. Now it sits treasured and untouched.”

“Bor-ing,” Mag says.

That did it.

“Alright, Mag, stick this in your pipe and smoke it; Jefferson wrote 1500 letters throughout his life. And those are only the ones they found. He created the first copy machine, fastening two quills together. Young lady, he even donated his lifetime collection of books to the library of congress. A man of many words? I’d say so.”

“1500 letters, huh?” Mike asks. He’s all the way in the back of the class, so naturally he has to be loud. “They hear of carpel tunnel syndrome back then?”

That gets a laugh.

“Alright, alright. Settle down.”

I catch a glimpse of Jonah scribbling something.

The piece of paper is out of his hand and into mine faster than Bruce lee going for your jugular.

I’m walking slowly as I bring it with me, to the front of the class.

I push my glasses on as I read the paper.

“Mr. Rifa needs to jump his ass out the window and . . .”

The class tightens up. Jonah cringes a bit, starts biting his nails.

I fold the paper into an airplane and toss it out the open window at the back of the classroom. Sitting down for a moment, I set my glasses back on the desk. These little pissants are trying to anger me. Well, the hell if I’m going to let them do that.


“Ye . .yes, sir?”

He’s quivering.

“Y’know, that sounds like a pretty good idea right now.” I slap my knees, purse my lips and march to the open window. I get one leg over and I clasp the top of the window frame by the time some of the students are trying to stand up in protest and are gasping at my attempt. But no one advances forward. They are frozen in disbelief.

I turn to them with a smile.

“Hark, I say!” I use my stage voice. “If young Jonah see fit a mutiny, I must walk the plank!”

I hear a few uncomfortable laughs.

I start rocking back and forth on the window ledge, stirring up conversations on the soccer field below where gym has started for a class of students. “But what next, Jonah? You only have one sentence here. Not even a complete one at that. You’ve got me and your audience on edge. Good. What’s the next move?”

He looks around, puzzled.

“Once I’m out, will I fly? Possibly make it to an uncharted land hidden between a dimension of stars like J.m. Barrie’s Peter pan? Will I contemplate suicide? Didn’t hamlet do that? Or shall I save myself by confessing that I, and only I, my lad, know of a hidden chest of gold?”

I stare out the window, for effect.

“Is there a treasure island somewhere out there?”

“Jump!” I hear someone say from below.

“Jump! Jump! Jump!”

Turning back to my class I see that Jonah is considering the alternatives. Have to press him.

“Welp, the I’s have it. Jump it is!” I point my finger at him, as if it were a sword. “Written of royal decree by Jonah Macintyre.”

“No!” he stands up and shouts.

I pretend to lose my balance and latch onto the window frame for dear life. “What sayth you, good sir? A twist, an honest to god turnaround?”

“Yes! Yes!” he shouts.

“You know the rules, lad. Only by royal decree.”

He quickly takes a pencil and scribbles something onto a piece of paper.

“Hand it to me, lad. For mine eyes need to seeth this for mine . . . Ah, whatever, just give.”

He walks slowly, sets the folded piece of notebook paper in my hand.

I step off the ledge. People are clapping inside the class as well as outside. I only hear a few groans from below. I hold the piece of paper like a torch in the air, the light of freedom. I embrace Jonah with my right hand. “By royal decree, I am free to live another day!”

We both take a bow.

“Son,” I tell him, “You’ve just changed history.”

Jonah nervously smiles, trying to pretend that we had this prearranged act.

You have to understand.

This was the week of the miscarriage.

I had to invigorate myself with new life.

God, I love teaching.





Chap 5


It’s Thursday. Angie’s reading a midsummer nights dream to me. That Shakespeare. He can be a nasty devil when it comes to sex comedies.

She’s doing all the voices, which livens me up.

She smiles, I smile. Just like before.

I never told her this, but the reason for my writer’s block was mainly due to her episode. She was having problems with her back that day, the happy mom-to-be. She asked to use my chair, the one I get the majority of my writing done in. Well, I was a dick about it for fifteen minutes or so then grumpily carried it into the living room for her. So unlike me.

When I came back with the popcorn, she was lying on the floor, clutching her stomach, a smear of blood was on my seat. I feared for the baby, I didn’t know what to say. But my mouth murmured, “My baby. My chair.”

While in the hospital, I interrupted her reading that day to apologize to her. She grasped my chest hard as she hugged me.

The weight lifted.

Had to let the ghost of little Nathaniel go. For the both of us.

To my students, I guess seeing a grown man trying to kill a fly was odd and a bit overdoing it. Shouldn’t have climbed up onto that damn desk, that’s for sure.

But, I do believe I had to fall in order to rise.

Hmmmm, not bad.

My students, the ones I called my ‘lucky 17’ tolerated my antics and even encouraged them, except for this last little bit about killing a fly. They didn’t know what the hell I was trying to prove.

Some visited.

Some sent their short stories to me in the hospital. Seven short stories from seven different genres of my tumble. Meg typed up the episode as a romance tale, the misunderstood Mr. Rifa falling in love with a fly, not knowing what to do but catch it to become a fly myself. It was cute. From every different angle they analyze my fall; The horror of it, the comedy, the romance, the mystery.

I’m happy to announce that Jonah has published two short stories, edited by me.

Mark Tory became a paramedic, but still admits to me, through e-mail that he writes at night, always during his lunch breaks.

As for me, I wrote this on my last night in the hospital. It’s just for me. A chance to realize the things I had trouble to understand. You know, why shouldn’t I be happy?

I have a darling of a wife, students who not only write to their hearts content, but stay in contact with me and a child on the way. I should accept the way things are and be content as well. In the words of my wife, the great muse, it is not important to write but to have written.

. . . Damn it.

There’s a fly in here.




© Copyright 2018 Roberto Scarlato. All rights reserved.

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