I walk through the empty corridor toward the stairwell at the far end. In the gloom, I can barely make out the green door turned mostly the color of rust. I look up when I become aware of the buzzing of the flickering fluorescent lights attached to the high ceiling, where much of the stained plaster is cracked and flaking. Only several of the tubes are actually glowing – maybe one out of every four or five at most. I notice the black rings at the ends of the one right above me.
I feel that I’m about to sneeze but manage to catch only the tail end of it in a threadbare handkerchief. The dust in the hall, to which I am allergic, is palpable; no cleaning crew has set foot in this building for longer than I can remember. I fold and replace the handkerchief in the trouser pocket of my charcoal wool suit. I hope to remember to handwash it later in the kitchen sink.
I continue on in the emptiness. Other than the din of the fluorescents, the only sound is the clacking of my leather soles on the worn tile floor.
The graffiti-covered walls had once been painted an industrial green, but the anemic color is noticeable only higher up, out of the reach of spray cans and markers. I sometimes feel that the walls are closing in on me as I make my rounds. I’d always longed for the glass windows that were once high above, allowing through a diffused milky light, but which were removed during a so-called renovation some years ago. Oak molding, once lovingly cared for, had been painted over to match the dingy, sickly color.
At the door to room 347, I peer through a tiny, cracked pane. Desks are piled up on one side, along the low wall under the windows. Several window shades are drawn but most hang limply by a cord. All I can see through the outside windows on this overcast day are the windows and red brick wall of another wing of the building.
Suddenly, the lights come on in the room – so bright that I blink my eyes shut. When I open them, I see a young teacher with brown hair, clad in a flowing, dark blue dress, open at the neck, perched on her desk. Through the closed door, I hear the raucous laughter and shouts of the children seated before her. As I turn the brass door handle – why is it unlocked? – she raises a finger to her lips to shush them, and when I walk into the room, she looks at me with questioning, yearning eyes. I look away from the many faces staring at me and walk to the back of the room, where there is an empty desk.
I sit down, open my leather-bound “Observations” notebook and then look up. The student sitting next to me slowly turns his head and smiles. His smile is contagious. Out of character, my lips are involuntarily returning it. As a warmth begins to spread inside me, the lights suddenly flicker off and I find myself standing, befuddled, in the middle of the room, a room once again devoid of life. The desks are piled atop each other next to the window and the blackboards are bare. Even the faded cork-brown bulletin boards have been stripped, except for bits of faded construction paper still fastened with staples.
I try, in vain, to fight the tears that come to my eyes, and I reach into my pocket for the handkerchief. It is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Intellectually, I know it is some kind of hallucination, remnants of memories that choose to visit at the most inopportune moments. Yet the illusion – if that is what it was – is so real and so sensual: the teacher, wearing a provocative, flattering dress, the beatific glow of the child’s angelic face, the almost blissful joy that suffuses my being.
I walk out of the room and pull the door closed behind me. When I turn the knob to check, I find that it is once again locked.
I continue on my way. A chill runs up my spine and I stop in my tracks, for I feel as though I am being followed. I slowly turn around to check, but as usual, there is no one there.
I stop to look into several other classrooms but see only the same dismal pileup of desks. I pass room 328 where, as a beginning teacher, I first taught, when I assumed that children had a natural curiosity and the hunger to learn, when there was respect for adults and teachers weren’t called names. But that was way in the past.
I get to the end of the corridor where two halls branch off at right angles. The door to the school library is at one end. A gray and blue tapestry – a banner in the school’s colors – still hangs over the entrance, but its shredded cloth remnants hang down like tears. Even when the library became a “learning center,” and a “resource center,” and then, a “media center” – I’ve forgotten the sequence, not that it matters – I used to slip in, just to watch the students reading and studying and quietly chatting among themselves. Sometimes the librarians would not realize I was there until they looked up from stamping cards and checking out books. I’d nod at them and they would smile right back. That’s how it was. Now, I can’t even bring myself to walk down that hall, knowing that behind the library’s padlocked doors are empty racks once filled with brightly colored magazines, shelves stripped of books, and the voiceless ghosts of children.
I sometimes have to kick at the stairwell door to get it open. I carefully make my way down, for the light from a single bare bulb is dim. Once, I lost my balance and hung onto the steel bannister until I got my footing back. I could have sworn that the stairs had disappeared, but it had to have been just my imagination. As I reach the first floor, the stench of stale urine and decay, intensified by the dampness, is almost overwhelming.
I reach for the door handle, and that door, too, is stuck. The dark, foul-smelling stairwell, with its latticework of gray-painted steel, always made me feel claustrophobic. I don’t want to have go back up the stairs. I start to panic. Only after I tug on the door and shake it hard does it finally open, but with a lurch, and I stagger back and almost fall. I wince from a spasm of pain. I take a few breaths and straighten up. I then gently close the door behind me without pulling it all the way shut. Somehow, the door always manages to settle itself back into its frame so that pulling it open becomes the next day’s battle.
There are fewer working fluorescents on this floor. At the end of the hall, thin shafts of gray light filter in through boarded-over windows. Motes of dust in the motionless air are streaked by the rays of light that barely sneak through.
At one end of the hall is the larger gymnasium with its suspended running track. Along the other hall are the rooms that were used by the business department. In a room behind a reinforced door derelict computers are stacked up with their innards torn out as if waiting for autopsies, with circuit boards and hard drives and the glass shards from blind and broken monitors littering the floor. I begin to wheeze as I make my way down the corridor to my old office, located just past the main entrance.
I continually ask myself why?: why I do this to myself, why do I come to this derelict building to roam its silent corridors, to look into the empty rooms, to stand alone at center stage in the auditorium in front of a sea of demolished wooden seats to, perhaps, vicariously relive times of joy and times of challenge, with pangs of longing amidst phantoms and apparitions. Why I put on one of the dark suits which hang in my bedroom closet like inert marionettes, to come, almost daily, now, to this extraneous structure. Why I unlock the two deadbolts and then lift the heavy steel gate, despite the arthritis in my spine, to get into the building through the boiler room to make my necromantic rounds, instead of playing golf or tennis, or taking in shows or matinee movies, or making it the goal of my day to get to an early-bird dinner. But I proceed, for I am driven. There is no escape for me, no alternative to my wanderings.
As I near my office in this building where, for over thirty years as teacher, then leader of the school, I watched students, faculty and staff come and go, where I oversaw and facilitated educational change in the name of progress despite my gut feeling to the contrary, where I presided over meetings with colleagues and subordinates with whom I’d been very friendly and close at times, yet always, always, keeping them at arm’s length, where I tried to serve as a role model and an inspiration for others while often feeling as if I had cheated and mistreated myself, where I was, all along, if the truth be told, just another replaceable cog in the wheel … as I near my office, I hear the muted sounds of cheerful conversation, of the clinking of glasses, of gaiety and spontaneous laughter.
The yellowed translucent windows in my office door are aglow. I try the doorknob but as I pull out my ring of keys, my handkerchief falls out of my pocket. When I stoop down to pick it up I’m shocked to see dried plum-red stains on it. I’m alarmed and momentarily afraid, but I stuff the handkerchief back into my pocket and slide the key into the cylinder. As I jiggle the key in the lock, for it never turned smoothly, the sounds inside the room become hushed.
I peak in around the opened door and I see a big smile on Robert’s face – Rob, the math chairman, with whom I had plenty of laughs, as well as much more angst, trying to find ways to make our rapidly plummeting scores look better than they were, to justify our existence as educators in the statistics-driven system and to keep our school from being closed and reorganized. He raises his glass to me and beckons me in, and I can’t resist smiling back at him.
Timidly, I enter, and take a deep breath. They’re all there, my cabinet, sitting around the polished wooden table in the warm incandescence of the ancient glass fixture which I refused to have removed when my school was modernized. There’s Jonas, my former nemesis, with whom I battled so often about pedagogy and about the meaning of life and about whom everyone always gossiped because of his androgyny and sexual proclivities. He winks at me, pours himself another drink from the green wine bottle on the table, and turns to talk with his long time companion. At his other side is Miriam, whom I always called “my right-hand woman,” an administrator with a poker face who actually ran the day-to-day affairs of the school. I always chuckled at the idea that it wasn’t only the Chinese who were inscrutable. This time, with a big grin on her face, and with a subtle gesture, she invites me to sit down next to her, at the head of the table. As I do, she pours wine into a glass and hands it to me.
I look around at all the other members of my cabinet, who are at their usual places around the table: Charles and Janice and Rachel and Stan. And Laurie, my secretary and dearest confidant, sitting with her stenopad in her lap, patiently waiting to record the minutes of our meeting. They’re all smiling, laughing and very much at ease in their camaraderie. As I nod at them, I reach up to loosen my tie with my free hand, for I feel a tightening in my throat. I wonder if it’s nervousness or maybe something else. But I’m diverted from that nagging fear because, for the first time in longer than I can remember, I am enveloped with a warmth that is pure rapture. No, that’s not exactly it. The fact is that I’ve never felt this way before – never, ever before in my life! So full of joy, so full of redemption. I’m transfixed and I’m speechless. I’m amazed and I’m so hopelessly, helplessly thankful. I can feel my skin tingling and my heart pounding in rhythm to the throbbing in my arm. And then I notice Ben, my predecessor and mentor, with his long gray beard, sitting next to Stan with his arm around his shoulder but … but he … they ... all of them, as I look once more around the table … they’re all gone … every single one of them. I’ve been to their wakes and their funerals. I’ve visited with their loved ones sitting shiva. No! This just cannot be! This cannot be how it ends.
I look around the table once again. As the light begins to dim, they, too, start to fade. Their joyful smiles become apologetic, then joyless, somber. Their lifeless eyes, so expressive just moments before, start to hollow. They are receding from me, withdrawing. They are becoming insubstantial, evanescent. At the very last moment, just before dissolving into nothingness, Rob points to my untouched drink, and I lift it to my lips.
May 7, 1998, September 16, 2008, December 27, 2011 Copyright © 1998, 2008, 2011 Lloyd B. Abrams
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Issue 22, February 2012