by DARDEN NORTH, MD
The newspaper obituary was poorly written. Even my tenth grade education picked up the grammatical flaws, not to mention the rambling content and elementary sentence structure: at least two run-ons and way too many commas. Although there was a subject-verb disagreement toward the close of the piece, misspelling was not an issue; I guess the Larkspur Ledger mercifully ran it through spell-check. No doubt the bereaved, overwhelmed author could have benefited from such a book as Obituaries for Idiots or perhaps a Google search for tips on writing death announcements. Unfortunately, that long column, an eruption of gut-wrenching sadness and bitterness, would be just the first of two the writer would ultimately pen.
Running alongside several others that day in the newspaper, the obituary mentioned the immediate family as survivors as though merely a single group was devastated. By anyone’s standards, the lives of at least four families (maybe just two families, depending on how you define family) were affected by the death – certainly more than four if one counts the physicians who eventually had to leave town over it. The funny thing about that hastily drafted, redundant memorial was that the paper did not bother to mention those other families, who in a liberal sense were just as immediate as the blood relatives of the deceased. Their existence, too, was twisted, no, tormented by one act, one day, one death.
The two years that followed found me as a high school senior in Larkspur, Mississippi. Normally that period of a teenager’s life would be a joyous relief, a climactic ritual to the great American educational experience. But for me, remembrance of that phase still evokes a sadness that has never found resolution. Sometimes the grief reaches a degree that is more than intolerable, depending upon how I remember my parents and how I believe others judge their final circumstances.
Many times the anguish of such regret causes mere existence to become marginal at best, especially when regret becomes a way of life.
And that existence was consumed by more calamity. Sometimes I have referred to those other sordid catastrophes as the rest of the stuff: the misfortune of stooped-over Mrs. Architzel and her dog; my police arrest with sexy Kaylee; the bloody mess in that serene neighborhood rose garden; and the other tripped-up actions that led to my wearing the proud uniform – the uniform of the Larkspur City Fire Department.
Nonetheless, during that coveted night spent on the hill with society’s upper crust, the distinguished uniform was left hanging in my closet, along with its spare.
Chapter 1 THE DESERVING
Anyone in the squirming audience who was forced to listen could have written the annual address.
“I challenge you to a sacrifice that is more than financial, a true spiritual, emotional sacrifice. Many of you have already made the ultimate commitment to the youth of Larkspur and the surrounding community. Through your tuition dollars and tax-deductible donations, your children have received the highest quality high school education available anywhere. After enrolling your sons and daughters at Larkspur Christian Academy, you immersed them in a secondary curriculum that will ultimately prepare them, actually over-prepare them, for any college or university in this country.” The headmaster pressed on for the kill. “And all the while during this high school experience, a true sense of integrity and honesty has been molded into our students as they have made their walk with God at Larkspur Christian Academy.”
His custom was to pause at this moment for prayer, an intriguing habit for someone who had not seen the inside of a church or touched a Bible in at least twenty years. However, that night Mr. Gregory Whitestone was running short on time and omitted a direct appeal for God’s blessing. “In its constant march to provide superior higher education, year after year our faculty has stimulated graduates to reach for diversity, moving toward challenging careers. Those choices have pushed them well beyond the borders of Mississippi.
“For that reason the board of directors has voted to change the name of our facility to Larkspur Institute for Education.” There would have been a hush of surprise at the announcement except that the audience members, as well as those of us sitting on stage, were nearly asleep. “This modern moniker will reflect not only the kindness and compassion that composes the moral fiber of our teachers and administrators, but will also clarify our quest to maintain academic excellence.”
Gregory Whitestone concluded the commencement address, calling for the audience’s greater commitment to God, democracy, family, and intellect – a loyalty automatically endorsed by school support. Whether it was a high school graduation exercise like mine, a football game, an annual honors day program, senior dance recital, or local civic club, Mr. Gregory Whitestone remained steadfast. To the listener he stressed no greater goal for mankind than prayerful, financial support of the newly-renamed private school.
I recall sitting there in the number one chair, hoping that I was listening to Whitestone for the last time and thinking about the financial cost of my senior year: seventy-five hundred dollars plus. While my grandfather would more likely have enjoyed spending that chunk on something else – like an investment or another memorial for my parents – he certainly did not begrudge the expense to educate me at Larkspur Christian – I mean Larkspur Institute for Education. In a happier time during the years before my senior year, when Mom and Dad had no real financial concerns and they paid the tuition, my parents could have spent the money on a getaway vacation or a piece of jewelry.
Those of us stiffly propped on that auditorium stage, in a hall which also doubled as a basketball court, were forced to attention during Whitestone’s oration. In addition to being on display in front of a proud, anticipatory crowd, the scratchy graduation gowns were a perpetual stimulant, fortunately enough as to keep each wearer from dozing off and sliding out of his or her chair.
His seat was well below the thin stage, toward the back of the area roped off for the rest of the seniors, the ones whose class rank was significantly lower. Although his gown was just as uncomfortable as those of the honor students, it was garnished only with nondescript tassels. The scarcity of gold tassels like those flowing from the smart kids was not a concern. The nobility, or lack of it, was lost on him.
He thought about the fire burning in the middle of the science lab. It had been thin and colorful and although hot, he wanted to touch it – to see how scorching it really was. The flame from that erupting combustion had quickly spread upward, but, as it should, moved more slowly outward. The gas feeding the flame was pure and flowed unabated in a mesmerizing plume that fascinated him. Even though the clean, precious fuel pumped continuously and furiously through the supply tube, the flame remained steady – slicing the invading spring from the opened windows nearby.
Watching Whitestone move his lips as though he were talking, he remembered one of the last days of class before senior holidays leading to graduation. That afternoon in science class, where Whitestone served in his other capacity as chemistry teacher, a gentle breeze entered through the open windows of the brick building, permeating the room with subtle air currents. It was just enough ventilation, not strong enough to bend the flame, but sufficient to prevent stagnation. Stagnant air was never good, never right. He had learned that.
As he ignored Gregory Whitestone that afternoon just as he was doing now, the stream of air from the high school grounds outside whirled around him, preventing the flame from heating the surrounding space to any significant degree. Characteristic of any freely burning blaze, the uninhibited one at his own science lab station had created a rising column of hot, multicolored gases – the beauty of the fire’s commanding control paralyzing him just as did every other flame in the room.
Now, sitting in a stuffy auditorium confined in a bulky graduation uniform, an outfit he found meaningless, he thought about that column of beauty in the brick science building – that beautifully mesmerizing burst of fire – and imagined what it could do if not confined to a lab table. Toward the last of the class period, he had reached for the gas handle and turned it slowly, watching the column push higher and become even more alluring.
Had he been able to run his fingers up and down inside the brilliant column, he would have found the fire hottest where the gas erupted from the nozzle to feed it. He knew that. He had already been taught that.