The Old Schoolhouse
The newspaper with the Obituaries page for June 24th 1983 was shaking in his hand as he held the receiver to his ear. The phone was ringing a long time. At last a young woman answered and said she would see if Mike Cousineau was still awake.
"Mike, it's Everett over here in Pittsburgh. . . . you know me, it's Everett Reedy. Yes, how you doing, Mike? Well, I'm calling because I was reading the newspaper which my daughter sends me, and I saw that Henry Peasley died last week. Yeah, you remember old Henry, sure, the one that was in second grade with us, back in the old schoolhouse. It says here that he was eighty four, something about a long illness, and he died in the Ste. Marie Nursing Home. That was last week I guess. It looks like the ranks are thinning out, Mike, I think maybe you are I are the only ones left. I was wondering, do you think there's any way you and I could go up there for the funeral. My son Harry says he'll drive us up if we want to go. Good chance to see the rest of the relatives also.
How you feeling, Mike? You think you're up to it? What's that, talk just a little louder, Mike. OK? Well then, you just wait a minute, I'll ask my son Harry when he is ready to leave. He says tomorrow real early, and we can pick you up in Pittsburgh about noon, is it still at 443 Locust Avenue? Yeah, I've got it, third left off Exit 34, white house on the left at the end of the street.......uh huh, I've got it all down on this paper, Mike. I'll call you if we're going to be late, you just have your duffel packed and we'll be off. It'll be like old times again, Mike, I'll sure be glad to see you. You remember Harry don't you, he's all grown up now of course."
There was a long and thoughtful silence. "He hung up, Harry, but no, he's OK and he's coming, I thought it just might have been a little too much for him, surprise and all, but it's OK. Let's get to sleep early, I'll be up earlier than you, Harry, don't need to set the alarm. You know, you can count on me, we old guys sleep light."
From Pittsburgh they skirted New York City, after a while they were passing Albany, and at last they were getting into the mountain country. Settled down at an old-fashioned inn in a valley between the forest covered ridges, they had dinner and were soon in bed snoring heavily in the fresh air of the mountain atmosphere. The next afternoon they went to the farmhouse where the family was gathered, and they all went down together to the White Funeral Home where Henry Peasley was laid out. Mike had been talking to some young people, telling them about the old days in this part of the country, the time when the Ford tractors were coming in after the war and how fast the mule teams were disappearing year by year. "You know, by l928 you could hardly find a team of mules in the whole county. There were big changes in those days going on."
The young family members were smiling to themselves hearing the old stories being retold. They were raised in a different world with TV and jet travel and the conveniences of life which we have nowadays. But they were respectful and listened to old Mike attentively, because that's the way country people are. Mike was pleased with their attention, because nobody back in the city listened to him that way. But it was nice to be back in the hill country with your own people.
Later that evening, Mike and Everett were sitting up in the farmhouse parlor before going up to bed, sipping a glass of home made blackberry wine which someone had hidden away years ago for just such an occasion. Everett was ruminating.
"You know, Mike, I made inquiries last year, wrote to everyone who would know about the old days, I mean way back when we were kids living up here, you know. I got letters back and heard one way or another pretty much about everybody, but Mike, you know by now they're all gone. Except for you and me."
They sipped the blackberry wine, dark as blood, and thought about it for a while. "I wonder who's going to go first, Ev."
"Not you, Mike, you're still strong as a horse. Just look at you, I'll bet you could fire up the old Oliver tractor right now, and plow up a twenty acre field, if it weren't so dark outside." They both laughed, but were feeling a little apprehensive inside.
They talked far into the night, everybody thought they were up to bed but they were comfortable sitting there, sipping the fruit wine and talking about the old days. "Ev, you remember some of the kids that were with us in the third grade. Why we were just small fry then, couldn't have been more than eight or nine. Do you remember that pretty Dorothy, she had freckles and tangled curly hair, you remember her? She was a nice one, never tattled and I think she stood up for some of the boys sometimes and even lied a little for them. And that Hope something-or-other, she was so thin and pale, a quiet girl but a terrific speller. I don't think she ever missed a word. You remember those spelling bees, Ev, I never was much good as spelling, even then I'd rather talk than spell." And they were laughing at their memories.
"Yep, Mike, I can see them right now. And Robbie Brown, you remember him don't you. He was killed in the first war, Belleau Woods I think. You know Alf Bowles was living up here all along until five years ago, his whole family was here, he must have had a hundred grandchildren by the time he passed over. You remember how all we fellows used to swim in the water hole back of the schoolhouse, Miz Kearns knew we were down there because she could see our clothes hanging on the fence when we went in, not a stitch on our bare asses. She didn't say anything, she was a good lady, she was. Sort of sad, though, her husband being killed in the first year of the war. But she never said anything about him, she just had those medals and the citation signed by General Pershing hung up on the wall behind her desk. She said they belonged to someone she once knew and she wouldn't talk about it any more. Very sad, Mike, we all knew it and I think we tried not to bother her too much. You know, all those people back in those old days, they were so young, and the funny thing about them is, they were us."
They sat in silence. "Ev, those days are so clear in my mind, it seems almost more real than what's happened since. Funny I've got all those pictures stored up as clear as day in my mind... " And Everett nodded as if to say in his mind too, as he tapped the side of his head to show where they were stored.
They went the next morning up to the cemetery on the side of the hill, it was the sunny south side and cheerful as suiting such a place, with flowers growing all around so nobody had to bring cut ones for the stones. They found a stone labeled Lucinda Kearns, age 74 years, widow of Joseph P. Kearns, killed in action l9l7 in France while serving his country. "Mike, I'm, 84 and you're 85, she would have been more than a hundred and ten now if she were alive. I remember her so clearly, the way she was, it almost seems that she should be alive somewhere still. "
The trip had been a great success, but Mike died a few months later,. His daughter-in-law called Everett to tell him, and she cried a little over the phone. He consoled her in a fatherly manner, saying when you get to be such and such an age, your time wasn't really your own anymore. Things have to be reckoned up, the piper has to be paid. He and Mike used to talk about that, and he knew Mike was ready to go, he had even said so, and Everett was ready too.
By spring of the next year Everett was in a bed in the Veterans' Hospital outside the city, the doctors said there were some complication with the lungs and his liver wasn't too good, but they were sure he would make it through. But he knew he was near the end of the road, he lay in bed day after day not wanting to eat, just lying there and thinking of the old days, and the kids in the schoolhouse who now seemed to be crowding around his bed each time he woke up, they were talking to him, fooling around and making kids' jokes.
He found every morning that if he turned his head toward the window, he would see black birds wheeling around the courtyard, and when he looked at them they flew again and again by the window, as if they wanted to come into the room. Each time he saw them, he could hear kids' voices once more, and suddenly the boys and girls were all around him, talking and laughing. They were now staying with him all day and talking all through the afternoon, but at evening the birds circled around the window twice before flying away and the voices stopped. He waited for them next morning, and as soon as he looked out the window, they were there.
He knew he was weakening, because the doctors didn't come to look at him any more and the nurses were very quiet in the room now, as if respecting his last privacy. One day after the birds came when he felt he was with the children again, it was back in the one-room schoolhouse. Miz Kearns was there, and the kids were all doing their lessons like they always did. He felt very peaceful, his mind roving over the roomful of his friends all writing on their slates.
And when the two nurses came in that afternoon, one said to the other that he was gone. It was true. The nine birds came and wheeled around once that evening, but when they departed there were now ten in the company, all heading far away to the north.
The old schoolhouse was still standing there deserted there by the side of the road which they were planning to widen. Nobody had been in it for years, the paint had just about disappeared from the siding, and the door was closed with two broad boards nailed up at an angle. Tourists passing pointed to it as one of those old one-room schoolhouses, saying that in schools like that the kids really learned their three R's much better in the old days. But nobody had any though to peer through the dirt stained windows to see what was going on inside.
Every night, after dark, whether there was moonlight or starlight or just deep darkness all around the place, eleven bright-faced young ones and a comely woman teacher did their lessons in a neat and sunlight filled room. There was laughter and cheer, everyone was so happy to be back again, back where their hearts had always been leading them, back there as the children which they once had been. Miz Kearns gave Henry Peasley a hammer and a handful of used nails and told him to nail up the loose clapboard on the side of the building so mice wouldn't get in during the night. The world was as safe and cozy as that schoolroom, which was their whole world. They had used up their time as grown up men and women, and having lived one way or another through many years, they could now at last come back to the old way they once had been. This was where they had always wanted to be, and now at last they were safe, all back there together.
Night followed night, month followed month, they had no need of yearning for heaven now, they had come to their resting home. They had no thought of time going forward, they never considered that it would not be like this forever, they had come home living in the old schoolhouse.
The road construction was almost completed, men with bulldozers had moved and brought large stones with compacted rubble and crushed rock on top, and at last the blacktop was being laid down and rolled. The road contractor was inspecting the job before telling the men to haul their equipment away. It was already getting dark, just two men were still there, the dozer driver and his chief.
"Joe, why don't you take the dozer over there before you load her up, and push over that old schoolhouse. The town clerk said it was alright, they're afraid it might attract kids who could get in trouble in there, you know what I mean. Yeah, just flatten it out, and take this can of kero and light it up when you're done. It's been raining last week and there' s no chance of a fire now. Don't need a permit, my brother's the fire-marshal, so it'll be OK."
He got in his car to leave, Joe brought the dozer around to the side of the building, lowered the blade to clear the ground, and started crawling ahead.
The children knew something was wrong, they piled the desks and bookcases up against the wall, pushing against them as hard as they could. Miz Kearns went over to the doorway to ring the school bell in alarm, but the rope was rotted and fell at her feet.
Joe figured the foundation went up into the wall a foot or two, the way they sometimes did it in the old days, so he raised the blade a foot, and came in hard. Nothing moved. He scratched his head, "Can't understand it, the old schoolhouse is almost falling down in the wind, and when I try to push it over, it feels as solid as a brick shithouse. Maybe my clutch is slipping, but. . . . give her another try."
He opened the throttle full, he gave it full gas ahead until the tracks were beginning to churn earth backwards, ,but nothing moved an inch. Just then a little board down near the foundation started to pop its nails, then it split and suddenly snapped out. After that, there was nothing but broken shiplap, broken floor joists and broken purlins dropping the slates from the roof all over floor. Joe went right through and came back across in the other direction, satisfying himself that the building was down to stay. He thought as he came across the second time that he had heard some little voices, figured it must have been a family of chipmunks nesting under the flooring. After the gasoline had flared up, he watched it turn into to a cheerful woodfire. He felt a little sad, but he thought driving home that the old schoolhouse was after all just a memory.
For three days after that, people noticed a flock of strange black birds, such as had never been seen in that county before. They were circling around the schoolyard, screaming raucously as they came and went all through the day. An ornithologist from the State University was asked if he wanted to try to identify the species, they thought that if anyone knew about this sort of thing, Dr. Beckman would know. But when he arrived it was already starting to get dark. Some boys were still hanging around the smoking ashes in hopes of finding pieces of old iron. They told him that just as the sun went down, the black birds went up high, came back for a long slow swoop, and headed off all together into the west.