The Class of Amontillado
The Bronx judge, no doubt, remembered reading about those stupid illiterate teenagers arrested for trashing Robert Frost’s summer cottage. The Vermont judge had meted out as part of their punishment that they had to attend a class on Frost’s verse taught by a Frost scholar. Yes, that would teach them. The idiot judge!
So when another group of teenagers trashed Poe Cottage, just up the hill from the university where I, a Poe scholar, once taught, the judge naturally reached out to me, Professor Solari, to instruct the kids in matters Poe. Yes, they had partied a little too telltale heartily, wasting Poe Cottage with crushed beer cans and hand-me-down condoms.
Was the judge such a moron that he imagined I, a Poe man, would be as nice about the assignment as the Frost scholar? The philistine!
The judge apparently was unaware that my contract with the university had been terminated. Killed. Something about me and a thirteen-year-old girl. Oh dear. The same age as Poe’s cousin, Virginia Clemm, when they married in 1835. Yes, I was a child and she was a child, etc. Only, you see, Poe wasn’t a child but a 26-year-old man. I pointed this out at my faculty trial. They didn’t want to hear it. “A different time,” they said. “Not that different,” I replied. “Poe lied about her age on their marriage certificate, claiming she was 25. Look it up.” “Oh? Really?” A pause. “Well, Poe was a genius. Ciao!”
Still, the judge was unaware of my dismissal. So I had a class to teach.
I met the half-dozen young teenage dolts, three delinquent boys and three delinquent girls, at Poe Cottage, the scene of their crime. Then surprised them by passing out six flasks of sherry to drink on our way to my “classroom.”
“This is punishment?” one savant asked, delighted as we hiked down the hill toward the leafy campus. “Cool!”
“Drink up, don’t complain.” I smiled. “Drink to your long lives!”
As we descended Fordham Road, my charges tipped back their flasks and their gaits grew increasingly wobbly. Except for one—the prettiest of the three girls. She made a show of sipping but it was only show. Finally we stopped at the university gate and they stood unsteadily, hands shading their eyes, peering in.
“Here?” asked a teen tyro.
“A little farther,” I replied, smiling. “Come, drink up.”
“I thought you taught here.”
“There was an insult. Drink.”
“Umm, good. We usually buy jug wine,” said a girl, stumbling. “What’s this anyway?”
“Amontil—sherry. Drink, drink.”
We crossed Fordham Road and entered a run-down neighborhood of century-old tenements. I halted before a derelict four-story building, then ushered them in, guiding them by flashlight. The fake drinker glanced warily at me. The abandoned building was dark and as the other five stumbled unsteadily along in mounting anxiety they tore fruitlessly at cobwebs that ensnared their eyelashes, smacked off spiders that descended into their hair, kicked at rats that danced over their feet, and lurched over black cats that lay as still as landmines.
“You sure this is right?
“Oh yes. Step carefully.”
Guided by my flashlight, we descended the steps and came to a door that opened into the basement—my classroom. A sweep of my light revealed two rows of desks, three desks in each row, with handcuffs dangling from the arm of each. Outside the doorway sat a pile of cinderblocks and a bucket of mortar with a trowel on top. Several students eyed these uneasily. Inside, in a corner of the classroom maggots crawled over indeterminate remains—my replacement at the university?
“This is a classroom?” one befuddled scholar asked.
“It’s funny that way.”
“What are those?” asked a nervous student, eyeing the maggots.
“Professor Solari, are you sure this is right?” whispered another.
“Yes, yes,” I said cheerfully.
The cute girl—the sham drinker—continued to observe me at a remove. I would have to keep my eye on her. A battery-operated lantern sat on the teacher’s desk. I turned it on, illuminating the darkness. On the desk I placed a small instrument. Back and forth it swung, clicking rhythmically like a heart.
“A metronome?” asked one musical mate.
“A pendulum.” I smiled. “You fail.”
One student, noticing a trolley with a portable TV/DVD player, asked, “Are we going to watch movies?”
“Oh, yes. Poe adaptations with Vincent Price. The Pit and the Pendulum. House of Usher. The Raven. Here, drink up.”
“Are these, like, torture films? Like the Saw movies. Or Hostel?”
“Sadly, no. They are from an earlier, more innocent era. Not so violent, not so bloody. Oh, but they were fun in their day!”
“Oh,” they groaned, disappointed.
I started the first movie. Their focus shifted to the screen.
“Well, maybe we’ll like ‘em,” said another student while I handcuffed him to his desk.
“You will, you will,” I promised, shackling a second scholar, a task made easier by her drunken bafflement as well as by her movie distraction.
“Will we be tested on these?” a third student asked nervously.
“You already have.”
“Really? How’d we do?”
“Not so well, I’m afraid,” I said as I fettered him to his desk too. I shackled two more students and, in a good mood, began reciting a love poem:
I was a child and she was a child
In my cribdom by the sea.
But we screwed with a love that was more than love
Me and my beautiful sweet pea.
But jealous bastards thought it vile
And snatched her away from—
“It doesn’t even scan,” said the girl who had faked drinking. “Not iambic pentameter but idiotic pentameter.”
“I paraphrase,” I said angrily. Who was this child who dared criticize me? She should have been the first one I had shackled. My mistake. And she was the prettiest! “Now be still,” I said as I lifted the handcuffs and started to—
“Whoa!” I cried. “What the hell?”
In one swift move—in a flash—she had outmaneuvered me. I, her teacher, found myself handcuffed to her desk as she slipped out of her seat.
“Okay, alright,” I said, chuckling. “You got the better of me on that. I promise you’ll get an A+ for this class.”
“Hush,” she said. She picked my pocket for the handcuff keys, then began unlocking the other five students who watched her, amazed and grateful.
“Wait a sec!” I shouted. “Stop! Unless you want to fail this class and—”
“Hush,” she repeated, continuing to free the others. When she had unlocked the last one she told them, “Now get out of here. Scat! Forget you’ve ever been here.”
They went. They bolted.
Next to the cinderblocks, atop the bucket of mortar, she found the trowel. She stepped outside the classroom and set vigorously to work walling up the doorway.
“Don’t do this,” I said, rattling my handcuffs. “It was only meant as a joke—to make you better students.”
“I drink to your long life,” she said calmly, continuing to lathe and lay the second tier, and then the third tier. “You were going to kill the six of us. That’s why you got the others drunk. No one would have looked for us in this derelict, boarded-up tenement. Archeologists would have discovered six skeletons a century or two from now. Now they’ll only discover one.”
“No, no!” I cried. “I swear I would’ve released you.”
Block by block the wall climbed higher in the doorway. By now the wall was nearly level with her budding thirteen-year old breasts.
“For the love of God!” I wailed, jingling my handcuffs. “Let me go!”
“Yes, for the love of God. We drink to your long life.”
“Please. I was only joking.” I cried, “For the love of God!”
She said nothing.
“What was your name again? Anna something?”
No answer. She was done—almost. One space the size of a cinderblock remained on the top tier. The lantern light had almost died. The DVD player had died. She poked the flashlight—my flashlight!—through the remaining aperture, flickering it about in the murky gloom.
“This is no longer your story,” she said. “It’s mine. In pace requiescat! In hell.”
Her face disappeared—just two hands lifting then angling the last cinderblock into place. Followed by the sound of the lathe smoothing out grout. Then—dead quiet. The doorway was completely sealed, the lantern blinked out.
“In pace requiescat,” I whispered.
Michael F. Covino is the author of three books: a novel, The Negative, a short story collection, The Off-Season, and a poetry collection, Unfree Associations. His stories have been anthologized and won awards, among them a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Fiction Award.