Previously: Retired college teacher Lucinda remembers her favorite student Vernon. Reality interrupts when another boarder Nancy scolds her for talking to her daughter Shirley. She remembers letting it slip to Vernon that she didn’t like Nancy.
Inside she stopped at the bottom of the stairs and considered the effort she would have to exert to return to her room. She thought she heard her bed calling her to come rest awhile, and she obeyed.
Lucinda had just nestled her head in her pillow and endured the squeak of the mattress springs when a knock at the door jerked her back awake.
“Miz Cambridge? It’s Miz Godwin. May I come in?”
“Of course, Mrs. Godwin.” Lucinda lifted herself from the bed and stood, forcing a pleasant look upon her face as Bertha came in.
“They said you was feelin’ poorly. I wanted to check on you.”
“How kind. I’m much better.”
“Good, because I need some advice.” Bertha stepped forward with the urgency of a life insurance salesman at the front door.
Lucinda’s body twitched. “How may I help you?”
“I suppose you’ve heard the fuss about the fire marshal.”
“Yes, some improvements have to be made.” Without thinking, she slumped into her rocking chair.
“Well, Emma is hell bent – excuse my language – on not doin’ a thing. She’s the most stubborn woman in the world.” She smiled as though she had been caught not being a proper Southern lady. “I should know, bein’ her sister.”
“And you want to know if I think you should inform the authorities of her noncompliance?”
Bertha paused, as though her mind had to translate into her Texas vernacular what Lucinda had just said. Eventually, she nodded. “I’d never hear the end of it if she knew I was the one who turned her in. But I don’t want to wake up some night with flames all around me. The way she smokes, I know it’s goin’ to happen.”
“I learned long ago not to make other people’s decisions for them.” Even now she shuddered at the advice she had given Vernon. “You have to look within yourself for wisdom.”
“You’re afraid you’ll lose the roof over your head too?” Bertha asked in sympathy.
“No, that’s not—“
Emma’s voice rang throughout the drafty old house. “Bertha! Come wash these dishes!”
“I’ve got to go.” She headed for the door. “You’re right. It’s my decision.” She looked back and added with what seemed to be sincere concern, “Now you git your rest.”
Before she knew it, Lucinda was back at her desk at the college, and Vernon, dressed in blue jeans and a pull over sweater, entered carrying a notepad and a textbook.
“Vernon. I’m sorry I displeased you earlier.” At that time in her life, Lucinda was not very good at apologies. “I hope any little arguments we have don’t disrupt our friendship.”
“What argument?” he asked as he sat.
“In the hall. You were in your gym shorts and we were talking about—“
“Oh, that was months ago,” he cut her off with a wave of a hand. “I’ve already forgotten about that.”
“Good.” She sighed in relief and focused on his notepad. “What do you have here?”
“It’s that paper you wanted me to do on Dante’s Inferno. And that poem I had to write about death.” He opened the notepad to the page where he had scribbled a few words. He shook his head. “Gosh, Mrs. Cambridge, this is hard.”
‘Well, do you see why I wanted you to write it?” Lucinda relaxed, comfortable in her old element of the classroom.
“Sure, if you go to – um, Hades, that means you must be dead and if we write a poem then we kinda know what Dante must have gone through to write his poem,” he explained with uncertainty.
“That’s right. So, read me your poem.” She leaned forward with anticipation.
Vernon blinked a few times and then began to read, forming each word with care, “One night on a dark country road/ I sped on my way home./ With thoughts lingering about my date/ I didn’t think of what was ahead./ Suddenly before my car/ Was a rabbit frozen with fear/ Fixed in the middle of the road./ The headlight glare caught the shock and fear in his eyes./ Then he died./ And I cried.”
“Very touching, Vernon.” She stood to walk around to his desk and read it again from over his shoulder. “I assume that really happened.”
“I’ve no quarrel with the free verse with the rhymed couplet. But it is very brief. Perhaps in here – “she leaned over to point at one section “–right before the rhymed couplet you could relate some other experience facing death.”
“I haven’t had any.”
She looked at him. “Surely one of your grandparentshas died.”
“No.” He shook his head, averting eye contact. “All of them are still alive.”
“Oh, there’s someone you’ve known who died.” She became aware of his aftershave, which she recognized as a common brand like her husband had used. “You just don’t remember. And there’s been some experience in your life when you’ve been faced with your own mortality.”
His shoulders shuddered a bit. “But I don’t want to think about it. It scares me.”
“Well, Vernon, dying scares all of us.” She was practically whispering in his ear. “Part of living is overcoming the fear of death.”
“Sometimes, late at night, I think about what it’s going to be like not to exist anymore. Not to feel, be hungry, be happy, look forward to doing things.” His voice took on a mournful, frightened quality.
“Only atheists believe death means not existing anymore.” She pulled away when she was aware she had entered a realm of preaching instead of teaching. She always prided herself on keeping the two issues separated.
“I know that.” He exhaled. “But if I’m not here I’m not existing. Being in heaven is something I don’t know anything about. That won’t be existing like this is existing.” He turned to look at her face. They were very close. “I’m not saying this very well.”
She smiled. “I think you’re saying it beautifully.”