Shattered Images

"Where the bee sucks, there suck I; in a cowslip's bell I lie..."
Desiree Alexander sat, eyes closed, enjoying the student's modern-day recitation of The Tempest. She was on top of the world. Life simply didn't get much better than this. Here she was, doing what she'd always wanted to do, working with young people and helping shape their minds.

Something must have happened to stop Shakespeare in midsentence. Desiree reluctantly pried open her eyes. She spotted the steel-gray head of Ida, the dean's secretary, peeking through the open door. No wonder there was silence. The students' attention was riveted on Ida.

Ida loudly whispered, "Desiree, Harvey would like to see you." She curved an imperious index finger.

That put an end to order in the classroom. The titters and whispering back and forth began. It was to be expected from sixteen-year-old teenagers, cooped up on a sunny spring day.

"Corinne, I'm putting you in charge," Desiree said to one of her more rambunctious students, a teenager who was extremely bright but preferred not to show it.

Stepping into the narrow hallway, Desiree huffed out a sigh. "What's so urgent that Harvey needs to interrupt my class?"

Ida shrugged and rolled her eyes. She was a gaunt woman with a tendency to over exaggeration. "Beats me. Mr. Coleman simply told me to find you wherever you were. I wasn't about to argue with him."

It had to be serious or Harvey would have waited until her class ended. Desiree glanced at her Movado watch, realizing that would be in less than half an hour. Surely whatever it was could have been dealt with then.

Her high-heeled pumps sinking into the plush carpeting, a slightly irritated Desiree followed Ida up the hallway and toward Harvey's palatial office, otherwise known as The Rack. More often than not, one teacher or another was summoned there to be grilled.

As the door shut behind her, the dean waved her to an overstuffed chair. "Have a seat, Desiree. I'll try to keep this brief."

Brief or not, Desiree didn't have time to sit. She needed to get back to her class before things got totally out of control. "What is it, Harvey?" Desiree asked, remaining standing. Harvey Coleman laced his fingers together and peered at Desiree over half-moon glasses. "I'll need your resignation letter on my desk by close of business today."

Desiree blinked at him. He couldn't be serious. On the other hand she'd never known Harvey to be a joker.

"What's this about, Harvey?" she asked, trying not to let her irritation show. "I'm in the middle of teaching a class. You wouldn't want to keep the future leaders of tomorrow waiting."

Harvey didn't so much as blink an eyelash. "I will expect your resignation by the end of today. We'll pay you through the school term, of course."

"What?" He still wasn't making sense. "This is nonsense. Are you laying me off? Are things really that bad? Come on, Harvey, you could have asked for wage concessions. I would have bit."

Harvey cleared his throat and set down his expensive pen on the desk.

"Desiree, this has nothing to do with the school's financial situation or the economy. It has to do solely with you."

"Me?" Shock was slowly taking hold. "Last week you were telling me how terrific I was with the kids. You felt confident I could step into your shoes and do more than an adequate job. You pretty much confirmed that I would be the first female dean of Fannie Jackson. What happened between last week and now to make me fall out of favor?"

Harvey yanked open a drawer of the gigantic mahogany desk and removed what looked to be a video.

"This!" he said, slamming down the case in front of her. "This Desiree, this. Viewing this filth still has my stomach churning."

Desiree's own stomach flip-flopped. No, it couldn't possibly be. But even as she dismissed the thought as preposterous, the image of a desperate young girl flashed through her mind. Why now, after all these years of respectable living, had her past come back to haunt her?

What should matter was the number of kids who graduated her English classes with a 4.0 cumulative average, the students that had almost perfect SAT scores, and the growing numbers that went on to receive Ivy League educations, not some indiscretion from her youth.

"Speak to me in English," Desiree snapped, bluffing.

"What does a videotape have to do with this discussion? And with me being fired? What could be on that tape that's so incriminating?"

Harvey looked at her like he'd just swallowed something sour. He reclaimed his seat, opting for the safety of a barrier between them. He reached for a folder, which Desiree realized had her name on it, flipped it open, and removed a thick sheaf of paper.

"Do you remember this?" Harvey thrust a wad of papers at her.

"What is that?"

"The business ethics disclosure you signed."

Desiree frowned. This whole thing was simply bizarre. When she remained silent, Harvey continued, "By signing these papers you agreed nothing you said or did would compromise the school's good name."

"Yes, that's true."

"Fannie Jackson has been compromised."

For the second time, Desiree's stomach lurched. The skin on the back of her neck actually prickled. No it wasn't possible...that video had been taken a long time ago. Almost twenty years...another life. Another time and she'd been under the impression it had been destroyed.

"What's on that tape?" Desiree challenged, wanting Harvey to confirm her suspicions.

This time Harvey had difficulty meeting her eyes. "I'm sure you know and I'm equally sure you understand why our association has to end. For what it's worth, I've enjoyed working with you, Desiree." He extended his ebony hand as though he fully expected her to shake it. Desiree let his hand dangle in midair. Harvey shoved it back into his jacket pocket. "You're a terrific teacher and a gifted one," he said, as if that were supposed to make her feel better.

After what could only be described as an awkward moment, Harvey handed Desiree the tape.

"Take this," he said. "View it in the privacy of your home. I've got another copy. Your check can be sent to any address you designate."

Desiree took the video from him. There really wasn't much else to do. Her manicured hand tugged on the collar of the tailored shirt she wore under her suit jacket. "This stinks, Harvey," she eventually said. "Really stinks. You haven't heard or seen the last of me."

Harvey actually deigned to step out from behind his desk. Taking Desiree by the elbow, he edged her toward the door. "If you need anything," he said, his voice lowering an octave, "don't hesitate to call. Good luck to you."

"I need my job," Desiree practically shouted, as Harvey's other hand circled the brass knob of the closed office door.

"That I can't help you with."

"I have every intention of taking this to the school board," she warned. "Like I said before, I will not go quietly."

Harvey paused, his hand still on the knob. "That would not be a good idea. The fewer people brought into this, the better off you'll be."

Desiree's head was spinning. She felt as if all the wind had been knocked out of her. "Are you threatening me?" she asked.

"Not threatening, just advising you not to risk the bad publicity. Look at the tape first before you determine any course of action."

Harvey turned the doorknob and stood aside. In a daze, Desiree walked out, ignoring Ida, who had probably been eavesdropping.

She managed somehow to put one foot in front of the other and make it down the hallway without once stopping to admire Lee White's art adorning the walls. This afternoon she was in no mood to appreciate the renditions of America's foremost black artist.

As she continued on her way, she passed a number of colleagues leaving their classrooms. Desiree managed to nod in their direction and hurried on. Was it her imagination or was she being given curious looks? At the age of thirty-seven, and after eight years of giving her all to a fine black institution, she was without a job.

She needed to get home and think things through. But first she would stop by her office and get her purse. Packing would have to wait for another day when her stomach had settled and she was up to being questioned by colleagues and friends. Most would find it strange that she of all people, Ms. Dedication, was leaving in the middle of the spring term. And, yes, her abrupt ousting would make sense if the secret she'd carried all these years had been exposed.

Desiree's office was as she'd left it: assignments still to be graded strewn across the glass-topped desk; a pair of comfortable Chinese slippers discarded in the corner; a stack of books, mostly classics, piled on the chintz-covered sofa; the mug of tea she'd been sipping on earlier, left to grow cold.

Her burning brown eyes now focused on a crystal vase as Desiree toyed with taking home the roses Byron, her boyfriend, had sent her only yesterday. They were all in full bloom.

Still needing a moment to gather her wits, she collapsed into the leather swivel chair and massaged her throbbing temples. The perfumed scents of an early spring floated through the open window, almost making her gag. The sounds of a sputtering lawn mower now wreaked havoc with the war in her head. Desiree got up and slammed the window shut.

After a while, she yanked open the bottom drawer of the desk and grabbed her purse, stuffing the video into it. A knock on the office door now got her attention. Bad timing, whoever it was.

A dreadlocked head poked in to the opening as a nut-brown face with a million-dollar smile called a cheery greeting.