Nonfiction from Emily James

Photo: Barry Zhou

Directions for Substitute

  1. Attendance is in the blue folder. Annie will do it, you don’t even have to ask. She colors the circles dark and deep, she doesn’t even need to call their names.

  2. Play music if you want to. They may dance, may look at you and laugh. Some will ask: Why you playing this Red Lobster music? Others will say: Hey, I like this Red Lobster music, I do.

  3. Talk politics with them. It will make you feel better. My Abuela could do a better job, Diamond will tell you, and she doesn’t even speak English. Republicans be so pressed, she’ll say, like for what? And she’ll shake her head back and forth slowly, brown curls fanning shoulder to shoulder, all her disgust laid out in a line.

  4. If you’re going through it, tell them.

  5. If you look a wreck, which we mostly do, call up Eileen. She’ll pull up her jeans over her hips and go behind your chair with her Tory Burch Bag all maroon and flat, folders fanned neatly in a rainbow. She has edge cream and this black brush with bristles that prick your scalp and when you flinch she’ll call you tender headed but just let her work, let her brush, let her smack the gum in her lips and when you turn around you’ve never seen your hair that smooth, scalp shining like a photograph you’ve only looked at in a frame.

  6. Don’t talk to them about your nightmares where your sunflowers all died and your husband carried them in giant Hefty bags and dumped them over a fence. Unless, of course, you want to see them belly laugh, all cute and round and vanilla blossom scented and hair gelled and free. They will cackle and cackle about white people sunflower nightmares. Did the flowers come back up at the end? they will ask. White people nightmares are the funniest, they will tell you. I bet those flowers come right back up in the end.

  7. If you bring a book to read, the NYT bestseller or the library novel with a crunchy sleeve, be ready for Mariana to come over like a baby to breast. She will stare at it, and wait for you to notice. She will pick it up and shake it to her ears. You can hear a book sometimes, she will tell you. If you listen closely, you can hear it, you can.

  8. She won’t tell you about her father, she won’t tell you that her step-sister’s prints were found on the knife, she won’t tell you how God needs people so he takes them, but if you ask, if you wait, she’ll tell you everything.

  9. They’ll offer advice if the deli guy fucked up the cream cheese on your bagel, spread it so it squirts on your chin on the first bite; they’ll tell you to always ask the tall one instead—the one with no neck. If your baby had a rough night, they’ll show you just the way to rock her, or flavor her bottle with Lucky Charms.

  10. If they’re on the phone, do the finger wag and give them a grin. They are standing by the window, because the service sucks by the board. But it may be someone important. Sometimes it’s their therapist, or that’s what they’ll tell you. Sometimes it’s their pastor. He’s telling me about bible study on Thursday! They will whisper, palm covering the speaker, I’m a holy man!

  11. If they won’t stop talking, just listen. If you yell at them to be quiet you will miss it all. That their weekend was Gucci like a pair of flip flops. That relax is a trigger word. That it smells like books and bullshit in here. That Joel’s head is looking like a Subway sandwich, which it is, the cute little bleached up curls like shredded lettuce, the most apt description you’ve ever heard.

  12. I left the worksheets in the corner, the copies a bit blurry, the toner was low. But it’s not about the writing. It’s not about the way their pencils dance under the fluorescent light, their knees shake and toes tap. I just want to make sure you’re listening. Because all of this, all of this, we need to hear.



Emily James is a teacher and writer in NYC. She’s the CNF Editor of Porcupine Literary and the Submissions Editor at Pidgeonholes. Her recent work can be found/is forthcoming in Guernica, Jellyfish Review, River Teeth, CHEAP POP, Hippocampus, Atticus Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2019 Bechtel Prize from Teachers and Writers‘ Magazine. You can find her online at and tweet her @missg3rd.

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