“Why, it’s time for your composition class, Miz Cambridge.”
“I haven’t taught since last December,” she replied in a bare whisper.
“Heck no. It was jest two days ago.” Vernon giggled in a non-malicious way.
“Are you real?” Her hand went to her bony chest where it made vague circles.
“Of course I’m real.” He took a step toward her, looking seriously at her face. “Miz Cambridge, you all right? You don’t look good.”
“I’ve had problems with my heart lately.” She valiantly tried to dismiss her unease and the feeling—not that an elephant was sitting on her chest—but that an elephant was in her chest trying to get out.
“Hope you’re goin’ to the doctor.” His eyes crinkled in concern.
“Yes, I have.”
“Well, that’s good.” Vernon tried to sit at one of the school desks but dropped all his books in the process. He slid out of the seat, went to the floor and started pulling the books toward him.
Lucinda always considered herself an intelligent person but could not figure out what was going on. Was she having a hallucination? She also considered herself too sophisticated to take spiritualism seriously, but now she doubted her previously held beliefs. “Are you a ghost?”
Vernon, with books securely tucked into his gangling arms, sat back in the desk chair and looked at Lucinda quizzically. “I don’t think so. I think I’m what they call a memory.”
“I’m sorry, Vernon.” She shook her head and closed her eyes. “I’ve tried very hard to forget you for the last ten years — quite successfully until today. So please, be a nice young gentleman and leave.
“Why, that’s silly, Miz Cambridge. I’m your memory. I wouldn’t be here unless you wanted me here. I always did what you wanted me to.”
“Then if it’s up to me, you must leave now.” She pointed to the door which her logical self knew wasn’t really there. “The way you came.”
Looking slightly hurt, Vernon stood and rather clumsily gathered his books. “Anything you say, Miz Cambridge.” He walked to the door but he stopped, as though something were holding him back.
“Vernon, I said go. Now!”
“Somethin’s holdin’ me back.” He stopped trying to go through the door and turned. “I think it’s you.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“I think there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to think about me but another — more powerful — part that does. So I guess I’m stuck here for a while. He pause. “Can I sit down now?”
Lucinda forced herself to see the room as it actually was—a boarding house bedroom and not a classroom—and stood to go to the real door.
“What are you doin’?” Vernon’s voice sounded hollow, as though an echo through a long tunnel.
“If I talk to someone, I won’t have to think about you,” she muttered. Then she yelled as loud as a woman of her age and health could. “Cassie! Cassie!”
“Cassie? You mean ol’ Cassie Lawrence?”
“Yeah, Miz Cambridge?” a voice emanated from down the real hall.
“Yep, that’s ol’ Cassie.” Vernon was sounding fainter and fainter.
“Be kind, Vernon,” Lucinda lectured.
“Whattaya want?” the voice from down the hall grew stronger.
“Please come to my room.”
“You mean you live in her mama’s boardin’ house?
“Yes, Vernon.” Lucinda became impatient. “Hurry, Cassie!”
“Hey! Nancy lives here!” His voice lightened. “I wonder which room?”
Cassie, a plain woman in her late thirties and with a club foot, finally appeared in the hall. “Whattaya want, Miz Cambridge?”
Lucinda put her arm around Cassie, guided her into the bedroom and walked right past Vernon. “Yes, Cassie. Thank you for coming.”
“I hope it don’t take long. Mama’s jest about got lunch ready.” Her dull blue eyes lit. “I think we’re havin’ chicken with stars soup!”
“I told you Cassie was a little funny,” Vernon said.
Lucinda looked distracted because Vernon’s voice was becoming strong again.
“Miz Cambridge?” Cassie asked.
“Um, yes.” Lucinda did her best to focus on Cassie. “What did you want?”
“You wanted me.” She shook her head in confusion.
“Am I makin’ you act funny?” Vernon frowned in concern.
Lucinda looked back and forth between Vernon and Cassie, who, of course, could not see Vernon.
“Miz Cambridge, You’re actin’ discombobulated.” Cassie’s tone went up an octave.
“Um, I suppose I am a bit distracted this morning.” She smiled nervously.
“No, you’re actin’ discombobulated.” Now her eyes were so wide they seemed ready to pop out of their sockets.
Lucinda needed a logical sounding excuse fast. “I need some more boxes for my books.”
“You gonna give them away?” Cassie asked.
“They make bookcases.” She smiled with phony confidence
“Okay,” Cassie repeated.
“Good bye.” Lucinda decided to capitulate to her demanding memory of Vernon.
“Okay.” Cassie walked to the door, looked back, shook her head and disappeared down the hall.
“Can I sit down now?” Vernon’s voice was a bit whiny.
“It’s time for class. Can I sit down now?”
In her mind’s eye, she had returned to her classroom, which she resigned herself to with a sigh. “If you wish.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Vernon plopped into the desk chair, again spilling his books. He bent over to gather them together as efficiently as possible.
“Don’t you remember what happened?” Lucinda reluctantly referred to an incident which had haunted her thoughts for ten years.
“No. I’m a memory. You remember me. I don’t remember.” Vernon laughed. “I guess you could say I’m transitive — or is that intransitive? Or somethin’ like that.”
“I think you mean an intransitive verb, but that’s not a very good metaphor.”
“Oh well, I never was any good at grammar anyhow.” He pulled a paper out and extended it to her. “Do you want to look at this now?”
“I wish there were some way I could make myself forget all this,” she muttered.
“Why, Miz Cambridge? Don’t you like me?” His hand dropped.
“I liked you very much, Vernon.” She allowed herself to smile. You were one of my favorite students. It’s just that—“
“Wow! You mean I was one of your best students?”
“No, you were one of my worst students. But you were one — no, my all-time favorite. You were so fresh, open and sweet.” Her eyes strayed to the window. It was such a pretty day.
“But dumb,” he added glumly.
“Don’t dwell upon the negative, Vernon.”
“Gosh, I’d think you’d enjoy rememberin’ somebody as nice as me.” From anyone else, that would have sounded boastful, but not Vernon.
Lucinda gazed fondly at the gangling boy, reaching to stroke his hair, but pulled away at the last moment. “Yes, it would be a pleasure to recall the good times like these.”
“Good. Here, look at my homework. I tried real hard on it.”
He extended his hand again and Lucinda took it and began reading it carefully. “Hmm, English composition. So this is your freshman class at the junior college.” She looked up. “How far are we into the semester?”
“This is the first week. You spent the first class talkin’ about what it means to be a writer. About some folks got it and some folks don’t. Like Mr. Hemingway there, he had it when he was young and then he blew his brains out when he didn’t have it no more.”
“Anymore,” she corrected him. “And I hope I didn’t use such a vulgar expression as blow his brains out.”
“But you jest said blow his brains out. I heard you.”
“In the privacy of my own room. In the classroom—“
“Oh, in the classroom you said he died of shotgun wounds to the head,” he interjected.
“That’s better.” She looked at the paper again. “So this is your first assignment.”
“It’s atrocious.” Lucinda was never good in editing her comments. “Now where did you say you went to high school?”
“Forestburg High School. Home of the fightin’ Tigers,” he replied with the fierce pride of a recent graduate.
“If you’d done more learning and less fighting you’d know more.” An eyebrow arched.
“Heck, what’s so bad is that I didn’t even do that much fightin’. The coaches all said they didn’t want me on none of the teams because I was too uncordinated. But that wasn’t it. I was clumsy.”
“The word is uncoordinated, and that’s what it means — clumsy.” Lucinda slipped back into her classroom style and it felt very comforting.
“See, I was right. I’m dumb.”
“No, Vernon, you’re not dumb at all.” She smiled slightly. “It’s just when you pick your college major, don’t choose physical education or English.”
“Hey, well, it’s not like I’m not strong. I’m strong as a bull.” He held up his arm and flexed his biceps. “I help daddy on the farm every day and liftin’ them bales of hay made me strong as a bull.”
“I’m sure you’re very strong.” Again her eyes glanced away.
“I could beat the –“ he stopped abruptly, apparently remembering his manners”– tar — out of them durn football players if we went out back and went at it, but those stupid footballs or basketballs or baseballs don’t fit right in my hands.” He held them up, and they were big and gnarly. “Know what I mean?”
“Yes, I know what you mean. I was never good at sports when I was a girl either.”
“Aw heck, Miz Cambridge, girls ain’t supposed to be good at sports.” Vernon laughed good naturedly.
“Vernon, if you expect us to be friends you must change your attitudes about women.” She arched that eyebrow again. “Women — at least some women — can be very good athletes.” She paused and then added, “ And don’t say ain’t.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry, ma’am.” He hung his head like a whupped puppy.
“That’s another reason I liked you so very much. You were contrite so easily,” she whispered wistfully.
“That’s because my mama wanted me to be a good Baptist boy.” His boyish grin returned.
“Well, let’s return to this paper. ‘What I Hope to Accomplish in Life.’”
“I don’t know,” he announced confidently, which Lucinda considered ironic in context of his statement.
She considered a different approach. “What do you want to do more than anything else in the world?”
“Git away from the farm.” His assertion of the negative intent was very positive.
“Not git, get,” she corrected. “Anyway, that’s terribly vague. Now think of something definite.”
“Make a whole lot of money?” With each reply he became less confident.
She nodded. “Earn a large income. But how do you expect to go about earning this large income?”
“Somethin’ — something — legal and honest, of course. Mama will want to talk about it at church.”
“You’re not focusing your mind on the problem, Vernon. You’re concerned with the auxiliary points, income, respectability. But the main problem is that you apparently don’t know what you’re good at.” In her mind she was mortified that she just verbalized a dangling participle, but since she was sure Vernon didn’t know what a dangling participle was she dismissed the thought immediately.”
Vernon took a long time thinking about her challenge, his face scrounging up. Finally he looked up and said, “I’m good at math.”
“I get a big kick out of algebra and geometry. I’m goin’ — going — to take trigonometry and physics before I move on to the university.”
“Oh, Vernon, that’s it. The way your eyes lit up when you were talking about mathematics.” She reveled in the breakthrough. “That’s your field. I’m surprised your high school math teacher didn’t encourage you to major in some field of mathematics.”
“Oh. We didn’t get along,” he said sadly. “Coach Ruggers didn’t like the way I found mistakes in the problems he did on the board.”
“He kept telling me I wasn’t as smart as I thought about figgers — I mean, figures.” He sounded a bit deflated.
“I hate to disillusion you, but teachers aren’t always right,” she informed him, thinking of all the coaches she had observed in classrooms through the years.
“But you are, Miz Cambridge.” He looked at her and smiled. “You’re always right.”
Lucinda diverted her eyes to look out the window. “No. I wish I were.”
“Well, get on with my paper — please, ma’am.” A surprisingly serious tone entered his voice.
“Yes.” She read the next sentence aloud. “I’m going to college so I won’t have to go into the Army.” Lucinda paused to appraise him. “Oh dear, Vernon, don’t tell me you’re a draft dodger.”
“Heck no, Miz Cambridge,” he replied. “I’d be going to college even if there wasn’t a war going on. But it’s kinda useful, isn’t it? As long as I take a twelve-hour semester load I don’t have to go to war.”
“But don’t you want to serve your country?” Reprove shadowed her face.
He paused a moment before admitting, “I just don’t want to die. I — I’d rather serve my country some other way, by living.”
“Vernon, just because you’re drafted doesn’t mean you’d be sent to Vietnam.” A knowing smile crossed her lips. “And just because you went to Vietnam doesn’t mean you’d be killed.”
“Oh no, I’d be killed. I’ve always felt that way.” He shook his head.
“Well, it’s silly to feel that way.” Her head tilted up in assurance.
“It ain’t — isn’t silly. It makes good sense. The way I look at it, war is like playing football, it’s sorta a game of strategy and running and — well, athletic things. And I’m not at all athletic — at least not when it comes to sports and things. So, I figure just like I’m the first to get struck out in baseball I’d be the first to die in a war.”
“No, I guess it’s not silly.” She realized she was not entirely forthcoming in compassion, a quality she always thought she had in abundance. “It may not be right, but it’s not silly.”
Vernon looked up and around the room. “Oh, there’s the bell.” He stood awkwardly and gathered his books together.
“I didn’t hear a bell.” Lucinda started doubting her senses again.
“Sure there was a bell. I only get to spend an hour every other day with you.”
As Vernon walked away, the room slowly faded into her boardinghouse room.
“But I’m enjoying my memories of our times together now. Why must you go away?”
“I don’t know. It’s your memory, not mine.”
Vernon paused to look back. “Oh. What did I get on that first paper?”
“Oh.” He sounded very disappointed.
“Don’t worry. You’ll improve.”
“That’s good. See you next time.” With that Vernon disappeared into the past, leaving Lucinda alone in the present.