Authors: Anne Mateer
Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050, #Christian fiction, #Love stories
The final bell of the day sounded. As I left the building, noticeably cooler air hit my face. I savored the change, thankful for the promise of winter's arrival. With winter came basketball. Before long my afternoons would be spent in the gymnasium, and my Friday nights, if I had my way with the school board, in the town hall.
Whistling, I turned toward home, eager to stretch my legs over the few short blocks.
“Chet!” Giles sprinted toward me, face red, breathing hard. When he stopped, he bent over, hands on his knees, gulping air. “Iâneedâtoâtellâyou. Triedâearlierâtoday.” He finally straightened. “I've enlisted.”
The words slammed into me, leaving me the breathless one.
“I report to camp in two weeks.”
Bile rose in my throat. I swallowed it down, reminding myself why I'd chosen to stay here. I couldn't leave Ma alone, even if she had declared she could take care of herself. And if I were
completely honest, I knew my students needed me, too. At least Blaze did. No one else would push him to graduate.
No, unless Uncle Sam required my presence with a draft letter, I'd remain in Dunn, doing what God had asked me to do. But that didn't mean Giles had the same path to travel.
“That's great.” My voice sounded flat in spite of my effort to be positive. “But isn't this kind of sudden?”
He shrugged, eyes faltering from mine. “Not really. I've been thinking about it for a while.”
I shoved my hands into my pockets, knowing Giles was waiting for me to say more. But I couldn't muster any excitement. I rubbed a hand across my forehead, wishing I could erase my frustration. No matter what, Brian Giles was my friend. I'd support him, same as I did Clay.
“Just don't go getting yourself killed over there, all right?” I said.
He blinked, as if he hadn't considered that possibility.
I jerked my head in the direction of home. “Come to supper. Ma'll never forgive me if I don't give her the chance to fatten you up before you go.”
“Ma?” I walked through the front door, right into our main room. A shabby sofa. A pedestal table surrounded by three spindle-backed seats. And the gramophone.
No sign of my mother. I ran up the stairs, calling again. “Ma!” I stood on the second-floor landing and scratched my head. It wasn't like her to be out, let alone out at suppertime. Maybe she'd run out of flour or baking soda or some such thing and gone to borrow some from a neighbor.
Muffled voices drew me back downstairs to the kitchen. Ma
was chatting with Giles as she tied on her apron. Then she shooed us into the front room. Two phonograph records later, we sat down to supper, Giles spilling his news, Ma flitting around the table like a schoolgirl instead of a middle-aged woman.
“Eat up, Brian. There's plenty more.” She smoothed his hair, patted his cheek. He chewed and smiled. The same scene had been repeated with Clay a hundred times over. But never with me.
I shoveled black-eyed peas and ham into my mouth, sopped up the gravy with a square of corn bread. And changed the subject. “So what about your basketball team? What do you think will happen to them?”
Giles wiped a trail of butter from his chin. “I feel real bad about that, but I talked with Principal Gray right after I enlisted. He said not to worry. He'd find a replacement coach as well as a teacher to cover my classes.”
I pushed my plate away. Principal Gray knew. Had he known when I'd spoken with him before? Of course he wouldn't have felt free to tell me even if he had. Suddenly all my plans for war bonds and a new gymnasium felt impossible. I'd pictured Giles and me making it happen together.
“You know, I'd counted on your help to recruit the school board's support for a new gym.”
Ma picked up our empty plates. Giles thanked her. Once we heard the water flowing in the kitchen, he leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head. “What are you up to now, Vaughn?”
I lowered my voice. “I plan to bolster Dunn's contribution to the war effort and maybe secure us a new gymnasium when the fighting's over.”
I'd stayed late at school for several days, putting the plan on
paper. The more figures I considered, the more convinced I was it could work.
His eyebrows arched. “You always did have ambition.”
“If you're still here a week from Thursday, I'd love to have your support at the school board meeting.”
“You got it.” The legs of his chair thumped to the floor. “I don't leave until the following Saturday. But you don't need me. You'll have the school board seeing things your way in no time.”
He had more confidence in my powers of persuasion than I did. I shook my head. “Even if I do, I'm going to miss having you on my team.”
On the second day of my new job, I finished reading the book and the journal on teaching music. Julia Ettie Crane insisted students start with learning to read written music. I'd already surmised that the former teacher had subscribed to this theory. I had a phonograph in my classroom as well as a supply of classical recordings. She'd left a few popular songs, too. But I decided not to pay attention to those. Not if I intended for my students to take this class seriously. To take me seriously.
Teaching my students to recognize the arrangement of notes on the page was similar to teaching mathematical formulas. Not as enjoyable as working out equations, perhaps, but just as fundamental. If the students demonstrated some proficiency in reading music, we could move quickly to performing the more difficult pieces.
Once I felt the students knew the notes by sound and sight, I'd adopt the approach of Dr. Hollis Dann of Cornell University: that the aim of music in schools should be toward culture and
refinement, cultivating music makers, not noise producers. We would be serious vocal musicians.
It helped some, settling my philosophy on the subject matter I would teach. And realizing that high school students were less likely to criticize a female teacher than their collegiate counterparts. Especially a female
I arranged my scribbled lesson plans, then picked up the pamphlet on basketball and skimmed the pages once more. It was like trying to read Chinese. And I only had a couple weeks to figure it out.
With a sigh, I stuffed the pamphlet into my handbag. Maybe it would look different after another night's sleep.
Jewel's smile stretched wide when I found her in the living room that evening. But her eyes remained sad. “I fixed supper. We just need to heat it up when we're ready.”
I dropped to the sofa beside her, unable to squelch a whimper.
“You aren't having trouble already, are you?” Her needles clacked faster, knitting something small and soft.
“No. Everyone's been great. Really. Miss Greenwoodâ”
“Bitsy Greenwood? The domestic science teacher?”
I nodded. Did Jewel know every single person in town? “She even invited me to sit with the other lady teachers at noon.”
“And did you think for some reason they wouldn't?”
Not exactly. Yet it had been so long since a woman had been my friend.
The front door opened and shut.
Jewel's knitting dropped to her lap. “JC? Is that you?”
A muffled reply.
“JC, come speak to your mother,” I said in my best school-teacher voice.
“Yes, ma'am.” He slouched in the doorway, sliding his cap from his head. “I'm home, Mama.”
I crossed the room and ran a hand through his feathery hair. He looked up at me with mournful eyes. “Can I go now?”
Jewel motioned for her son to join her. When he complied, she wrapped her arms around him. Her eyes glistened. “I miss your father, too.”
My chest felt as if it would explode, bleed sorrow over the walls and floor. Then Jewel simply began knitting again. Needles steady in her hands.
“Mama?” Inez's bare feet slapped against the wood floor as the sun dipped below the horizon. “Mama, Uncle Bo's here.”
I slipped the basketball pamphlet under the cushion of the sofa and tugged Russell into my lap as a buffer, all while my sister flew out of the room to welcome our unexpected guest.
On the other side of the room, JC slumped more deeply into the wide chair. Davy's chair. Eyebrows lowered, he peered up at Bo as Jewel, chattering like Trula after a day at school, drew him into the room. “Lula got the job as the new music teacher at the high school. Isn't that grand? And thank heaven she'll sit in for Mrs. Wayfair from now on at church, too.”
“That is good news!” He sat down beside me, rather sheepishly, I thought. “I wish I could attend more often.”
I scooted away from him, closer to the opposite edge of the sofa, as his gaze swung from me to Jewel. “Y'all are a sight prettier than my men over at Fort Sill.” His mouth crooked into a lopsided grin. “And you smell nicer, too.”
I wanted to sink into the floor, but at Jewel's laughterâthe first I'd heard since Davy diedâmy chagrin turned to gratitude. My eyes sought Bo's. His expression sobered for a brief moment before he looked away. Warmth spread up my neck. Russell clamored for Bo's attention. He lifted the child, then tossed him toward the ceiling. Russell's giggles put me back on firm footing, at least until JC skulked from the room.
Jewel frowned, looking from me to Bo and back again. She reached for her smallest son, ending the gaiety. “I'll put this little guy in bed and then retire myself. You'll see to the girls, won't you, Lula?”
My lips parted, but Jewel didn't give me time to reply. She turned to Bo. “You know, of course, that you are welcome here anytime.”
Several emotions I couldn't identify swept across Bo's face. He stopped Jewel with a gentle touch on her arm. “If you need anything at all, Jewel, I'm here to help.”
My sister studied the floor. When she raised her head, I glimpsed Mama in her steady gaze. My breath hitched. “Actually, there is a way you can help.”
My sister glanced at me, wet her lips. “If you could sell Davy's automobile, I'd greatly appreciate it. I need the money to cover the doctor bill that's coming.” Her cheeks paled but then colored as pink as a summer sunset.
Bo's eyebrows gathered above his generous nose. “A doctor bill? From Davyâ?”
“Excuse me.” Jewel fled, leaving me alone with Bo and his bewilderment.
He pushed back his hair, drew in a breath. “I thought that was all taken care of.”
My chin fell to my chest as heat rushed into my face. “She'll be fine in a few months.”
Heavy silence. I peeked at his expression. He blinked, clearly mystified. I sought a more direct, though still delicate, explanation. “Nothing she hasn't experienced four times before.” I prayed he'd take my meaning without any more specific words.
A few moments later, he grimaced. “Poor Davy.”
Compassion and sorrow mingled in the man's voice. Poor Davy. Poor Jewel. Poor JC and Trula and Inez and Russell. And the new little one, too. With the load they had to carry, I had no right to feel as sorry for myself as I had lately.
Inez pattered back into the room, face streaked white, fingers dripping with thick liquid. “I need help.”
I stooped in front of the child, my hands on her tiny waist. “Inez! What have you gotten into?”
“Making a cake. For Uncle Bo.”
I darted to the kitchen at the back of the house. Flour dotted the walls, the range, the icebox. Four eggshells littered the small work table, a yolk dripping yellow onto the floor.
I covered my eyes and groaned.
“May I help?” Bo's voice in the doorway.
“No, thank you. I'll take care of it.” I picked up a rag and ran it under the spigot that protruded over the white ironstone porcelain basin. “Like Jewel said, we appreciate your stopping by.” I met his eye. “And I appreciate your offer of help to my sister.”
He cleared his throat, his gaze sliding from mine. “There's nothing I wouldn't do for her.”
Before I could decide what he meant, I found myself alone, scrubbing away Inez's attempt at hospitality.
“Overall, I am very pleased with your knowledge of written music notes and symbols. That will make our time together much more enjoyable.” I walked the aisles of my classroom my first Friday on the job, setting each student's graded test on the table in front of him or her.
A freckle-faced girl grinned as she read the A+ at the top of her paper.
“I've been thinking about our performance programs for this school year. We have the Christmas concert, of course. And National Week of Song in February. Patriotic music is suggested for that. And we'll culminate the year with a cantata.” My hands empty of papers, I returned to the front of the room, to my podium. “I'm considering a new composition,
, by E. S. Hosmer. Again, I feel the patriotic theme to be in keeping with the times.”
One of the boys in the back raised his hand. Charles, if I remembered correctly. Seventy-eight on his examination in music reading.
Charles stood, eyes laughing. “When do we get to do the fun stuff?”
“I'm sorry. I don't believe I understand your meaning.”
“You know, popular music. âFor Me and My Gal.' âSweet Little Buttercup.' âThey Go Wild, Simply Wild Overâ'”
I held up my hand like a policeman directing traffic. “We won't be singing those types of songs. We are here to make music, not noise.”
The collective groan undermined my point but firmed my resolve. They might not take this class seriously, but I did. “Our goal is to listen to and perform music that is worthwhile.”
“Anything that gets my gal in my arms is worthwhile to me,”
quipped a boy to my right. “With Miss Delancey we did all kinds of fun stuff.”
Laughter tittered across the room. I pressed my lips together, then rapped my knuckles against the desk. “We're not here to while away our time with nonsense. We are here to learn.”
Chins tucked toward chests, alleviating the need for me to see disappointment in their eyes. Except for Charles, who cocked a grin in my direction.
My gaze locked on his.
He didn't waver.
Visions of Mr. Graham returned. My chin lifted. I might only stand in front of a music class in a high school, but I refused to be trifled with. I'd lived with that from my siblings for too many years. Daddy said education would change everything. I still believed him.
The boy's lazy smile grew. I spun around, putting my back to my students as I shuffled through sheets of music. If that boy thought for one minute he could make me change my mind, he didn't know a piano from a trombone.
Slow, deep breaths calmed the banging in my chest and cleared my vision. The sheet music in my hand read “Amazing Grace” at the top. They ought to be familiar with this one. We could work on assigning parts.
I took my place at the piano and peered at the black notes on the white page until my eyes burned. Mama's twang rang loud in my ear, warbling her favorite hymn. When my students' voices joined in, tentatively at first, then breaking into full-out song, air returned to my lungs. My shoulders relaxed. And my hands settled into a sequence of notes I thought they'd long forgotten.