Hammy Vogelman teaches at the middle school, which technically had been spared, though of course it didn’t feel that way. The first one was in early November, at the elementary school. Hammy had not been afraid. He barricaded the doors and turned off the lights and he and his sixth graders faced the fact of death together, in silence, like a large family trapped in the rubble of a great and total war. Hours later, when the time came for his students to be returned to their parents, they went hesitantly, as if Hammy himself had been their safety. It was the most profound day of his life.
Then, in May, there was another. It was at the high school, during the Advanced Placement U.S. History exams. This time, when it was over, there was no serenity. There was only the coldness of knowing that the world as Hammy knew it could not go on.
Now it is late July. A long-winded email on Hammy’s phone tells him the appointed working group has come to their decision: the district is going remote. The schools will remain virtual for the entirety of the next school year, perhaps longer—until they are certain the children will be safe. Hammy reads the email twice.
The windows in his basement apartment all face west, so in the mornings it feels like a bunker. The rooms are neat, but bare. There is a kind of deadness in the grays and whites and empty surfaces. Hammy is twenty-nine, and his bedroom has always been his own; he is an only child and has never had any sort of lover. There are no paintings or pictures, no speaker or sound system, no books. It suddenly strikes him as a room belonging to someone who does not work from home.
In the afternoon, Hammy gets in his car and picks up Cupid Lofgren, his only friend, from his apartment on the north side of town. Apparently, when Cupid was born he looked more like a baby than real babies usually do, which is how he got his name. Hammy can sort of see it. Now Cupid has long black hair and bags under his eyes. Until today, he was a custodian at the middle school.
“I’m newfully unemployed,” Cupid says, putting his fishing rod and tackle box in the backseat.
“What world is this?” Hammy asks. “Is this what the future is?”
“They’re saying it’s safer,” Cupid says.
“Is this what the future was supposed to be?”
“The children will get less murdered,” Cupid says.
“We were all born too late,” Hammy says.
They drive to a place they call the shpot. The shpot is behind an abandoned sugar factory at the end of a dead-end road that runs between the train tracks and the Hudson River. It’s a terrible place to fish, but it’s wide open and exposed and the city skyline waves like a mirage on the horizon—yet at the same time it is, in its dilapidation, completely secluded and unknown, and so it is a great place for Cupid to take his psilocybin mushrooms. He grows them under purple lamps in the spare bedroom of his apartment and chases them with ginger tea. Hammy isn’t interested in the mushrooms, but he takes pleasure in remaining unchanged while Cupid evolves into a sort of paranoid oracle.
Today, though, Hammy feels unmoored. They park on the side of the dead-end road and walk over loose chunks of rock to the slanted concrete slab on the east bank of the river. On the high end there are two tattered beach chairs. Cupid puts his fishing rod in a cupholder and sifts through his tacklebox with a finger.
“It’s like they’re giving up,” Hammy says, lowering himself into the other chair. “How can we give our students hope if we don’t have hope? The point of education is to help young people function and thrive in society. Is this functioning? Is this society?”
“Everything is society,” Cupid says.
Hammy stretches his neck all the way back and looks at things upside down. There is nothing that makes the abandoned sugar factory look like it had been a sugar factory, but that’s what it was. “Did they say what they’re doing with the school buildings?” he asks.
“They’re keeping a skeleton facilities crew,” Cupid says. “And I am not a skeleton.”
“I know that everything is changing,” Hammy says, “but it doesn’t feel new. It immediately feels like this is how things are.”
Cupid unscrews the steel lid from his mason jar and picks out a palmful of dried mushrooms. “Bon voyage, Mr. Vogelman,” he says, gagging and reaching for his thermos.
The fishing line bobs and the water laps at the concrete slab. It is a hot and hazy day but Hammy can still make out the New York skyline to the south. The river seems to narrow, rather than widen, as it flows out toward the bay.
“This is just another part of my life,” Hammy says. “I was born. I became bar mitzvah. I graduated high school in third place. I went to college.”
“There’s no third place,” Cupid says.
“I got a job as a para. I moved to my apartment. I got the Language Arts job. Half the teachers walked out and we combined Language Arts with Social Studies. See what I mean? I’ll look back and this will just be another event. The schools went online and locked their doors for good.”
“They say you’re getting all new tech,” Cupid says.
Hammy watches the line bob for what feels like hours. They almost never catch anything, but last May, two days after the second shooting, Cupid caught a big alien-looking catfish. He was tripping pretty hard by that point. He’d cried as he kissed its whiskered cheeks, telling Hammy that the fish was full of reincarnated souls. When he let it go, it floated, motionless, before finally slipping down into the murk. Hammy had felt sure, then, that life would go on.
“Life is not going on,” Hammy says. “My life is ruined. Can I say that?”
“You’re saying it,” Cupid says.
“I know it’s selfish, but this is my career. I’m not, you know, a family person. I’m not a personal life person. It’s too late to look for another job. Classes start in two weeks. And then what? I spend all day alone in a basement?”
“I’m feeling it, mushroom-wise,” Cupid says.
“Boils. Blood. Locusts. We’re expected to normalize,” Hammy says. “We’re expected to adapt.”
“I can’t teach Humanities if humanity is doomed,” Hammy says.
“You should travel,” Cupid says.
“You can work from anywhere, now, right? You need a change, man. Look at you. You’ve been stuck here. You’ve told yourself your job is all you need. You’ve been too selfless, man. Think about that word. You don’t have a self.”
“I have a self,” Hammy says.
“You’ve devoted your life to this profession, man. But now you have an opportunity to do something for you. You’re free to leave town. Leave state. Leave country. See the world. And you’ll still have your job. They’re still real children. Man I am feeling it now.”
“Where would I go?” Hammy asks.
“You should start in Mexico,” Cupid says, his eyes wide. “That’s where I got my grow kit.”
“Mexico,” Hammy says.
“Cost of living is low, food is bomb, and you already speak Spanish.”
“How do you know I speak Spanish?” Hammy asks.
“Everyone speaks Spanish now,” Cupid says, standing and throwing a concrete scone into the brown river. It sinks without a splash. “I’m going to miss you, man.”
“I haven’t said I’m going anywhere yet,” Hammy says.
“I love you, Abraham Vogelman. You’re my best friend. I’m going to miss you so much.”
Hammy lands in Tulum, Mexico the night before the first day of school. His taxi driver is a man from Denver. They drive toward an endless black void where the ocean must be. The hotel lobby is freezing cold. Hammy checks in, orders guacamole at the bar, then takes the elevator up to his room. Before unpacking anything else, he sets up his new laptop on the desk, angled away from the bed. On the white plaster wall behind the chair is a framed picture of a bursting beach sunset, overlayed by big bolded letters that read, DAIQUIRI TIME.
Hammy looks once more through the new curriculum his school district commissioned from an ed-tech firm. Everything is bite-sized and colorful and interactive. The understanding seems to be that children cannot endure anything else.
Sleeping in my classroom tonight, Hammy texts Cupid.
What luxury, Cupid replies.
All my students will be alone in their bedrooms. They will be muted until they unmute. They don’t have notebooks. They don’t have books.
Worrying about them is your way of distracting yourself, Cupid says.
Distracting myself from what?
You need to focus on having a full and meaningful life.
What about you? Hammy asks. How’s the job search going?
I’m exploring alternative income models, Cupid says. I don’t want to just be a cog.
In the morning, Hammy takes the elevator down to the buffet. He still has several hours to kill before his first and only class of the day. His schedule is unlike any he has ever had. They will meet for three hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. Tuesdays and Thursdays are asynchronous. He had set his alarm for nine-thirty, but of course he still woke at a quarter to six, like he always does. In the morning light, his colorless, sterile hotel room had reminded him of home.
He cannot remember the last time has had a long, warm, or protein-rich breakfast. He takes a new plate every time he goes up because those are the written rules. The luxury of it all makes him uncomfortable. He has never been one to enjoy simple pleasures. The truth, he knows, is that he is in love with suffering, and here, without it, he is empty.
A few years ago, a student named Gary Rhodes suddenly appeared in the doorway of his classroom in the early morning. The school day did not start for an hour. Gary told Hammy he was feeling sick, which was why he had decided to start walking to school so early—his parents had already left for work and he didn’t know what else to do. It was as if his nausea needed to be shared, and the only place he knew to share it was at school. Before Hammy could respond, orange vomit began pitching out of Gary’s mouth and onto the tile floor. The only other person in the building was Cupid, who without hesitation fetched a bag of coffee grounds and a bag of sand from the custodial closet and dumped them both over the bile. As if by magic, the stench was cut with what could only be described as the smell of freshly brewed coffee, and the three of them had laughed and laughed as they put on their rubber gloves and cleaned up the slop together.
Hammy gets back in the elevator. He saw Gary Rhodes for the first time in years at the vigil on the baseball field in May. His classmates were resting their heads on each of his shoulders, wiping tears and sweat from their faces with the slackened collars of their shirts. What Hammy could not fathom was how much taller Gary had gotten, how much thinner. He wore a faint mustache. Hammy did not know how anything could change so quickly.
“Welcome to sixth-grade humanities, learners,” Hammy says. His voice is swallowed by the stillness of the hotel room. “Let’s go around the grid and say our names, preferred pronouns, and what we’ve eaten today.” He looks around at their blank, nervous faces. “I’m Mr. Vogelman. He, him. I had scrambled eggs, toast, waffles, sausage, bacon, oatmeal, and three al pastor tacos.”
One of the boxes lights up yellow. “My name is already below my head,” Jill Capaccioni says.
“Welcome, Already Below My Head,” Hammy says. “And what have you eaten today?”
“I had a chia bowl,” she says. “And my name is Jill. She, her.”
“What’s da-queery time?” Mikey Lapidus asks, his nose taking up his entire box.
“I will answer that question after you introduce yourself,” Hammy says.
“Mikey,” Mikey Lapidus says. “He, him. I had cereal and nuggets.”
“A daiquiri is a frozen rum cocktail,” Hammy says.
“We’re twelve,” Mikey says.
“According to the Torah, Mikey, a boy becomes a man at thirteen,” Hammy says. “He can marry and start a family.”
Another box lights up. “I’m Jewish,” Molly Weitzman says.
“So you know what I’m talking about,” Hammy says.
“I’ve had a daiquiri before but only if they’re virgin,” Molly says.
“You have to say your name,” Jill reminds her.
“I’m Molly Weitzman. She, her. I also had cereal and then I had freezer dumplings.”
“Doesn’t virgin mean you haven’t done the bears and the bees?” Mikey asks.
After the introductions they play a get-to-know-you game called My Favorite Place on Earth. Molly Weitzman goes first. Hammy always goes backwards alphabetical. He had been a ‘V’ kid. Molly, who is in her bedroom, chooses her bedroom as her Favorite Place on Earth. The others follow suit and limit themselves to rooms in their own houses.
“Learners, thanks for sharing,” Hammy says. “Even though we’re remote, I hope you still get some opportunities to explore the places beyond your homes. That’s something I’m really trying to focus on this year myself.” He looks briefly at the blue sky through the window above the air conditioner. “The world is a beautiful place.”
“I never want to go back to school,” Mikey Lapidus says. “Math is a video game now.”
“Me neither,” Jill says. “I’m less distracted by the need to socialize.”
“Mr. Vogelman?” asks a boy named Amir Tantawi. He isn’t showing his whole face, just his forehead and the ceiling fan above him. “You never went. What’s your favorite place on earth?”
“It’s right here,” Hammy says, trying to smile. “With you all.”
Oh, come on, bro, this isn’t a place, Carla Jimenez types. She is having microphone problems. Do a real one.
“Okay,” Hammy says. “Well, then, I guess I’m still trying to find it.”
Nice save, Carla says.
Tuesday is asynchronous. Hammy assigns some diagnostic reading comprehension worksheets, eats another massive breakfast, then walks down the road to the beach. He gets a sick vertigoic feeling when he sees that he is, and has been, on a cliff. There are perhaps more stairs than he has ever taken at once leading down to the beach. At the sand line, he puts his sweaty socks into one shoe and his phone and room key in the other and leaves them on a rock ledge. The sand itself is chalk-white and buttery. There are a few swimmers in the water, but most people are in the shade under the lounge chairs. With their black sunglasses and their devices perched squarely on their chests, they give Hammy the impression that they are in some fundamental way not really there.
He walks back to his shoes and calls Cupid. “I’m looking at the ocean,” he tells him. “The water is not brown.”
“Isn’t it the middle of the day?” Cupid asks. “Shouldn’t you be teaching right now?”
“We’re asynchronous,” Hammy says. “It’s Tuesday.”
“That’s pretty nice.”
“All my students seem completely fine with the way things are,” Hammy says. “So I should be fine, too.”
“You need to find joy,” Cupid says.
“Except part of me feels like it’s my responsibility to show them that things are not fine. This is not the way things should be. They should not be content.”
“Why shouldn’t they be content?”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Hammy says.
“You’re saying it.”
“How’s the alternative income search going?” Hammy asks.
“Done,” Cupid says. “I got a roommate.”
“I moved the mushrooms into my walk-in closet and Elena moved into the other bedroom.”
“My roommate,” he says. “Getting a roommate is like getting a job, money-wise.”
“I never thought about it that way,” Hammy says.
“Her room is bigger so she pays more.”
“Where did you find her?”
“On a listing site for radical live-work spaces.”
“Your apartment is a radical live-work space?”
“She makes prints,” Cupid says. “She’s going to help me start my business.”
“The mushroom business,” he says. “She has some really good ideas for how we can market them. They give people hope and love. They help people mourn. They help people process. Things like that.”
“That actually makes sense,” Hammy says.
“Exactly, man,” Cupid says. “We need them now more than ever.”
On Sunday, Hammy flies to Mexico City. He drops his bags at his short-term rental apartment, which he will have for two weeks, and then wanders the streets of Roma, a leafy, upscale residential district nestled on the east side of a massive park. Each building is more ornate and colorful than the next. He seems to be the only person in the whole neighborhood without a dog. He passes Dalmatians and Danes and Springer-Spaniels and a Mastiff so bushy and wide he has to step off the sidewalk.
Cupid texts him in the evening. Can we use your apartment while you’re away?
For what? Hammy asks.
Basements are humid. Really good for spores.
Thanks so much, man. How’s Tulum?
I’m in Mexico City.
How far is that from Oaxaca?
Oaxaca’s where I got my grow kit.
I think I’m going to extend my trip. Considering Europe.
Really good, man. I think she’s the one.
There’s no word for what we are.
One day Hammy brings his computer out to the small balcony of his apartment. He stacks a few large books on the low coffee table and rests his computer on top, adjusting the angle of the screen to get rid of his reflection.
“Happy Monday,” he says.
“Why are you so bright?” Jill Capaccioni asks.
“I’m outside,” Hammy says.
“I had cereal and nuggets again,” Mikey says.
“You’re like clockwork, Mikey,” Hammy says.
Soon he sends them off to read a series of short articles on the topic of Youth Initiative and to fill out a simple graphic organizer. Later, they share. Molly Weitzman goes first. “My claim is that kids have the power to change the world,” she reads. “My evidence is that a boy who was only thirteen was able to save his family’s cows from lions by inventing flashing lights out of motorcycle parts so that the cows didn’t get killed so that his family could eat. Another evidence for this claim is that kids who like hip-hop made music videos that helped save the world from pollution.”
That’s what I said too, Carla types.
Amir Tantawi goes next. “I believe that sad times make people think hard and find good solutions,” he says. “For instance, the little girl in India who made fancy bags out of garbage was really poor, and now she’s not because she sells the bags.”
Mikey cites an article in which a sixteen-year-old inventor designs football-shaped gas-mask canisters for firemen and first responders to throw into the windows of burning buildings. “This shows that you can save lives with sports,” he says.
Hammy knows the class is meeting the necessary standards and demonstrating the grade-level skills. But for some reason, he feels that they are failing to grasp something, or rather that they are taking hold of too much: leaping too far, seeing too many options, making too many connections.
Amir Tantawi raises a hand. “We should invent things to help our community too,” he says.
“We could invent magnetic shields that stop bullets,” Mikey says.
“I have an idea,” Jill says. “We could build humanoid robots, and every kid gets one, and we can control them from our rooms, and they can, like, go to school for us, and go on field trips, but we can still be at home.”
That’s impossible. Carla types. Right?
“I like the enthusiasm,” Hammy says. “I’m so glad you’ve all been inspired.”
The next morning, Hammy finds a coffee shop on the other side of the park. It is not a little place. In the back there is a massive atrium with exposed brick walls and a lofted dome ceiling made of glass. There’s a full-sized tree in each corner. People sit at wooden banquet-style tables, typing on their laptops and sipping from mugs and little glasses of water. Hammy chooses an empty seat toward the end of the back table and looks up at the tree, searching for a sign that it is artificial.
“What a place, huh?” an old woman asks. She has pale, wrinkled skin and thick gray hair with a pink stripe on one side.
“It’s massive,” Hammy says, taking out his computer.
“Ah, you’re one of these traveling type-typers.” She drums on the table with her fingers.
“I’m a teacher, actually,” Hammy says. “In New York.”
“Thank you,” she says, saluting. “Thank you. Is it a holiday this week?”
“We’re actually remote right now,” he says. “It’s a whole thing.”
“How awful,” she says. “Children in boxes.”
Hammy tightens. “It has actually been pretty great for most of my students. They’ve normalized. They’ve adapted. It takes away a lot of unnecessary distractions. It works especially well for students with disabilities.”
“Busts,” she says. “Just their busts. Just typing.”
“I get it,” Hammy says, smiling sweetly at her. “Some people have a hard time with change.”
The woman’s face turns red. “I know change,” she says. “I’ve seen change. This is different.” She scratches at the table with both hands. “This is not change.”
Hammy had never been to Europe before. In London, he watches bulbous, tippy cars fly by on the wrong side of the road. It shocks him how strange it looks. Change one minor detail, he discovers, and the entire world seems lopsided. There is also the time difference. He wonders if there is actually something different about the time itself, how it moves and feels, related in some way to the earth’s imperfectly curved surface, or to the oblong shape of its orbit around the sun. Hammy’s class doesn’t start until the evening. By then the light is disappearing from the windows of his subleased flat on the third floor of an old townhouse near Greenwich Park.
“Why are you dark?” Jill Capaccioni asks.
“Because I’m inside,” he says. “It’s dark in here.
They are working on essays about peace. Gandhi, Mandela, King, Malala. They go to a virtual disarmament museum created by the city of Nagasaki. They watch a video about a Jewish-Arab primary school outside Jerusalem building community and trust.
“No fair,” Mikey says. “They still have recess?”
Hammy goes to France. He goes to Spain. Portugal. There are fast-food joints and shoe stores built into the ground floors of four-hundred-year-old buildings made of limestone. People drink white wine at breakfast and eat dinner at midnight. He tours ancient castles won in the crusades and looks out at oceans of Moorish red tile roofs.
Their next unit is all about the government. They watch an animated music video about how bills become laws. They make flowcharts to demonstrate checks and balances. They draft letters to their senators. “My letter says we should make a law that everyone in New York should have to plant ten trees,” Molly Weitzman says.
“That would be a lot of trees,” Hammy says.
“If I’m ever President,” Amir Tantawi says, “I’ll have everyone meditate for ten minutes every morning. That way we’ll all be connected by life-giving energies.”
I’d vote for you, Carla says.
On the last day before fall break, Hammy throws a class party. He streams clean, environmentalism-themed hip-hop music from the internet and they play simple interactive games that toe the line between education and entertainment. It will be a full week before they see each other again.
“I just want to say how proud I am,” Hammy says. “I didn’t know what to expect this year, and I’ve been blown away with your effort.”
“Thanks for being our teacher, Mr. Vogelman,” Amir says. “You’re a role model for all of us.”
Have a good break mothafuckaz, Carla types before immediately logging off.
Mikey Lapidus stays until the rest have gone. “Do you have kids?” he asks.
“I do not,” Hammy says.
“Do you have a spouse?” Mikey sticks his thumb in his nose.
“Do you?” Hammy asks.
“No!” The boy smiles and dips out of the screen, then reappears.
“Me neither,” Hammy says.
“Okay,” Mikey says. “Bye!”
Hammy lands back in New York on a cold and rainy evening. He walks out of the terminal and follows the signs to the garage where he will order a ride. He is surprised to find that his home country feels, for the first time, like his home country: a particular place with a particular atmosphere, one that he had seemingly forgotten, and to which he is now becoming awake again. In the wet darkness, people’s phones shine like lanterns onto their pale, carved faces. “We’re here,” they say into the speakers. “Where are you?” They waddle toward the pick-up area to the drumroll of their suitcases. It is hard to tell which family is which, who goes with who.
Hammy’s driver is from Senegal. Soon they exit the highway and pass by the clear, bright windows of houses. Hammy finds his eyes flitting from window to window. He realizes he’s looking for the faces of his students. He knows how slim the chances are, but he is transfixed by the possibility of seeing one of them standing in the warm light of a living room or seated between siblings at a kitchen table. It feels like looking for the people in his dreams.
His apartment smells like wet dirt. On all the counters in the kitchen there are large plastic bags filled with what looks like blocks of molded dough. Stacked on the table are boxes of mason jars and several piles of small square purple cards. The cards are stamped with a yellow label that says GOLDEN TEACHER (5g). In the center of the card is a small dosing scale, from MICRO to something called HERO, which is, apparently, the entire five grams.
He picks Cupid and Elena up the next morning. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” Elena says, climbing into the backseat with the fishing poles.
“You know,” Hammy says, “my mother’s name was Elena.”
“I’ve never thought of you as a person who had a mother,” Cupid says.
“Everyone is a person who had a mother,” Elena says. Hammy smiles at her in the rearview mirror.
They park at the shpot. It’s a cold and cloudy day. Hammy walks to the concrete slab with his hands in pockets, blowing hot air into his jacket’s throat.
“I assume you’re the one who made the little purple cards,” he says to Elena. “They’re great.”
“Thanks for letting us use your apartment,” she says.
“I like the name. ‘Golden Teacher.’”
“We didn’t come up with that,” Cupid says, casting. Hammy notices he is using a longer rod with a new silver reel. “That’s the strain. Golden Teacher.”
“It’s one of the most popular species in the country,” Elena says. “Super easy to grow, super consistent, super powerful. Used in all sorts of therapy.”
“Very educational. Hence the name,” Cupid says, standing and wiping his hands. “It’s all we sell.”
Hammy walks down to the low edge of the concrete slab. He hadn’t noticed it was drizzling, but he can see the droplets making little lashes on the water’s surface. “Barge coming,” he says. From a distance, it looks like a small black arrow.
“Coming fast,” Cupid says.
“You know what today is?” Hammy asks.
“November something,” Cupid says. “Oh, man.”
Exactly one year earlier, the first shooter open-fired at the elementary school playground. He didn’t even step on to the property; he was able to kill two fourth graders and a recess supervisor from beyond the chain-link fence at the edge of the woods. Still, by the end of the month, the schools reopened. There were posters and banners all along the hallways, reminding everyone to be strong, to love each other.
“Cupid told me you’re, like, the best teacher ever,” Elena says. “He said you’ve always been everyone’s favorite.”
“Thanks,” Hammy says.
They stand in silence for a while. Hammy watches the water as it climbs up and down the fishing line. Then, suddenly, they are submerged in the sound of rushing water. As hulking and loud as it is, the barge had snuck up on them. For a moment, the black hull is all Hammy can see. And then it passes, headed somewhere upriver.
“I’m glad you’re back, Mr. Vogelman,” Cupid says.
“Are you going to stay for a while?” Elena asks. “Are you planning another trip?”
Hammy watches the water heave itself toward the shore. “I don’t know,” he says. “The nice thing about the job is that it doesn’t really matter.”