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pharaoh
October 28th, 2007, 08:57 PM
Between Shadow and Smoke: A Memoir</O:p


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The moribund grave of sin and self-loathing that I have dug for myself is cavernous; it walls scaled high by the layers of foolish pleasures. Iím mid-aged now, and already I feel the end closing in about me, dark clouds forming in the valley just beyond my most recent crisis. Was it my selfishness and my supercilious nature that spelled my undoing? Was it my lack of regard for the needs of others?

Can I blame it on a mind beclouded by years of drug abuse? Was it the protracted state of denial, my shameless appetite for sex or my prodigious thrust for approval?


Gone is the five-bedroom Victorian two-story in the suburbs and the two cars. Gone too is my sense of self-worth, let alone any respect that I may have garnered from my co-workers and friends. Friends, now thatís a joke. I never had any, really.

Lots of casual acquaintances along my primrose path had passed for friends, but never a friend in the lot. Maybe thatís because I was never truly befriended a single soul. Not a one.<O:p</O:p
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To anyone who has befriended me, my name has become synonymous with disappointment. As for coworkers, I no longer have a job, not one I can live off anyway. My car has been repossessed and my three children no longer make inquiries, unless of cause Christmas or a birthday is drawing near. But, I guess I had that coming too. My two stepchildren told me in no uncertain terms, ďYouíre not our father so you canít tell us what to do, so why donít you just go.Ē <O:p</O:p
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Years ago, I walked out on my three adorable children in search of the effigy of happiness. I had made a solemn promised to each of them while they slumbered blissfully in their cribs. I vowed that stars would desert the heavens before I left them to face a cold, unforgiving world alone. So much for vows because thatís precisely what I did. With all of my years of serious study, efforts to education others, and the pursuit of academician credentials: Iíve never learned the meaning of the word fidelity. Honesty, devotion and sacrifice were tragically missing from of my repertoire as well. <O:p</O:p
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How did I get to this wretched place maligned by the shadows of iniquity and clamminess of self-deprecation? A murder of crows has descended down upon my field of dreams. The timorous scarecrow, that is my inner self, stands idly by while my spiritual harvest is ravished by thousands of tiny, ravenous beaks. <O:p</O:p
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I have used people and they have used me and I have been too blind and too stupid to know it. <O:p</O:p
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I am circumscribed by debt and couldnít obtain credit enough to purchase the hole in a donut? My good health is beginning to suffer from years of ďexperimentingĒ with lifeís little helpers and then washing them down with ample amounts of inebriation. Binging on drugs and alcohol had become my perilous aversion from reality. <O:p</O:p
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Taking the easy way out has cost me my pension after nearly twenty years at a teacher, I have next to nothing to live off of after Iíve cross the finish line. I have squandered a more than modest salary with no thought to my golden years. <O:p</O:p
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I married badly, no wretchedly. Which ended the only way that it could have, with pain and suffering all around. The one woman who stuck by me through it all has yet to be makes an honest woman. Like all the others, she has received only the promise of a good life. <O:p</O:p
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Buried in a deep, dark cave of dreadful despair, where the sympathetic voices of strangers are the only cure for feeling of alienation. I found gratification in lust, not love. The touch of a forbidden thigh, a stolen kiss my only salvation. <O:p</O:p
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I offer no apologies and have few regrets concerning the life that Iíve lived because, to some degree, my life chose me. Okay, it was my choice to lie, to steal, and to hurt the very people who loved me the most by betraying their trust, but then there were all the mitigating circumstances. <O:p</O:p
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I have unleashed my share of wrongdoing into the world. For that I have paid and continue to pay a karmic retribution. From me, the devil has deducted his pound of flesh. But I have also contributed a fair amount of joy and laughter into the world, as well. For that, I have been rewarded and continue to be rewarded. The light of my divine soul flickers faintly in the face of a hellish gale. Nevertheless, it still burns, and where there is light, there is life, and where thereís life thereís hope. <O:p</O:p
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This book is a testimony to the healing powers of that hope. <O:p</O:p
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Only the truth matters now, or as much of it that remains unsullied by the gauzy veil of my faulty perception. Sometime an embellished portrait of truth is all we have to go on. Oneís personal truths told to self and others become the pretentious ground on which our world rest. Reflections and remembrances twisted into a cadre of fibrous strands bounded into a self-image. <O:p</O:p
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This assures that my stories are fact and fiction, real and imagined, lies and gospel.

Already my literary legs are sagging under the weight of reservations; my mouth is too dry to swallow and stomach flutters with anticipation of a journey to the furthest region of my past. A past that until now, Iíve only visited by way of nightmares. The thought of holding the actions my loving parents, who are both deceased, up to light of scrutiny terrifies me. <O:p</O:p
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But, the thought of examining my own deleterious thoughts and misdeeds frightened me even more. So much so, that I thought of scraping the project more than once. However, in the end, I knew that I have no other choice but to plunge head long into the icy, but often healing waters of life. I pray that absolution and spiritual expurgation lies in wait at the other side, waiting to caress me, suckle me and restore me. <O:p</O:p
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In addiction to the therapeutic reasons, and the compelling urge to tell my story, I revel in the thought of revisiting my childhood and all its tragedian twist. I long to again set eyes on the salubrious faces of my youth, I miss them so. I dearly miss them so. <O:p</O:p
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pharaoh
October 28th, 2007, 09:06 PM
Without a Whisper


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James A. Hall
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In the fall off 2004, my live-in girlfriend and I were sharing a car. I taught in Hampton, Virginia and she taught a half-hour away in Yorktown. Sharing to her meant her dropping me off in the morning and picking me up at quitting time. I often had thirty minutes to kill before Pop showed up and open the doors. As I am a creature of habit, I soon settled into an early morning ritual.
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Joy comes in the morning. Isn’t that what they say? Well, I had found joy in the morning stillness nestled between the edge of night and the coming dawn. My mornings began with a recital of a few of my favorite psalms and proverbs followed by some positive affirmations. Afterwards I’d stroll the school grounds reveling in the smell of freshly cut grass, cool erratic breezes and a deep resonating silence.
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Winding up back where I started; I lit my third cigarette of the day and waited for the glow of Pop’s headlights. He drove a relic of an Oldsmobile, but he kept it spit-shined. Pop was the school custodian. He opened the building each morning exactly at 6:45. I could and often did set my watch to his arrival.
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Not a morning went by when we didn’t chat about the weather; carp about the-kids-these-days or froth over our next vacation. Pop frowned upon long exchanges, but seemed to warm to a moment of morning small talk. It took some time for me to dissect his down-home dialect, which was seasoned with more than a pinch of southern drawl. Once the school alarm system was deactivated, we’d head in opposite directions.
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As I waited by the back door that morning, 6:45 came and went. Just above the western horizon hung a single star, a reminder of night’s end. A litany of blues and savory reds painted the spiny cloud vapors drifting high in the upper atmosphere. The chromatic splendor of sunrise reminded me that pop was late: as I was usually at my desk by now.<O:p></O:p>
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I lit another cigarette and embarked on another soliloquy of affirmations, and waited. Still, no Pop. Though the parking lot remained empty, it still felt late nonetheless. Finally a car turned down the long, tree-lined street leading to the back parking lot. As it neared the school, I could see that it wasn’t Pop’s old jalopy. It wasn’t a car at all. It was a Wrangler jeep. It belonged to the Mr. Green, the head custodian, a tall, brown-skin man with a ghoulish chuckle. He was a good man, but harped constantly on locate politics and saw conspiracy to defraud in every city council meeting. Upon his approach, I stamped out my half-smoked cigarette and readjusted my shoulder strap.
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“Where’s Pop this morning?” I asked. “Is he sick?”
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“ Pop died last night,” he answered. That was all that I heard. Knowing Mr. Green, he probably poured forth a deluge of details including the time of death, the cause and possibly the time of the burial.

But, he lost me after his first few words. Pop and I weren’t all that close. I had only known him three months. That’s why I can’t explain what happened next. Mr. Green’s words continued to wash over me, as I stood there, oblivious. I shook off the shocking news just in time to hear him say, “Pop had a long and full life”. We both stood shaking our heads for what seemed a fitting length of time. Then he went about prepping the building and I proceeded to my class at the far end of the building.
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Schools in Virginia are ridiculously long compared with New York schools. Land being comparatively cheaper, there’s no need to add floors. The hall was semi-dark, the only source of illumination the two skylights. The sun struggled to penetrate the bubble shaped membrane. As I traversed the dimness, I was consumed with memories of the feeble old-timer. Finally, I reached my room. Flicking the wall switch unveiled a disturbing starkness. After unpacking, I plunged down into my orange cloth chair-inherited from a stout math teacher who had since retired-and attempted to craft the day’s lesson plans. But, it was no use. POP WAS GONE.
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Catching me off guard, tears began rolling down my check prompted by a profound dreadfulness that soon morphed into anger. He was an old man working way beyond the golden years. He walked hunched over, like a man searching the floor for loose change. Come to think of it, he didn’t walk. He shuffled, his spindly legs sagging under his emaciated mass. I remember seeing him in the middle of a class change. In midst of turmoil, he silently went about his job. Not a soul conscious of his Herculean efforts. That’s what it required of him most days to bend over and pick up a discarded gob of paper.
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He was invisible.
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Then my thoughts drifted to the ultimate cosmological question: what is the meaning of it all? Did God have the same in store for me, to die without even a whisper? I sank deeper into despair as I contemplated the finality of death and my own mortality. I had overheard someone say that Pop buried his wife years ago and was living alone. I lamented over the fact that life would go on at Lindsay Middle School without him. And sadder still, he wouldn’t even be missed.
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I found myself perched on the edge of my chair, rocking and wiping away the steady stream of tears. “You could have helped him, God,” I scolded. I’m sure that Pop prayed for the good life, just as I had that very morning. Were his prayers answered? No! That is, unless the old man wanted to spend his final years in agonizing pain, and to then die impoverished and alone.

I had never felt such deep anguish, not even while standing in the cemetery watching my parents being lowered into the ground. But, with the death of this old man, I realized the escapable certainty of my own end, my own mortal fate.
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On my way outside for one last butt before the start of class, I encountered the normal flow of traffic to the copier room. Not a mention of Pop’s passing. The buses began pulling up and the school roared to life. My homeroom was abuzz with the usual morning prattle.
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“You know that Pop died,” I said to no one in particular, to everything in fact. The rapid and multi-topical twaddle came to a crashing halt.
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“Who’s Pop?” their eyes asked, lukewarmly.
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“He was the old man who picked up behind you, scrubbed your graffiti off of the bathroom walls and unstopped the toilet when one of you stopped it up. That’s who he was! You should a least know his name.” I hadn’t realized it, but my angry was spilling over. The stunned look on their faces confirmed it. Was I now blaming them for Pop’s inauspicious finale, and my own mounting uncertainties? Perhaps, to placate me, a few of them recounted stories with Pop scolding them about this or that.
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“ Please stand for the Plead of Allegiance,” the school announcer interrupted. After prodding my class through the listless morning ceremony, we sat. Morning announcements got under way. Ms. Barry, the assistant principal, imparted a few inspirational words for the day and relinquished the microphone. The annoyingly enthusiastic student broadcast team announced Lion King auditions, read sports scores, and warned us of the cafeteria’s latest culinary debacle.
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“Have a good rest of day,” blurted Ms. Barry, ending the broadcast. Wait a minute. Where was the news of Pop’s passing? Where was the thank you; job well done? I stood staring at the loudspeaker on the wall. I fully expected the announcements to recommence, with the Principal, herself, apologizing for the oversight. Instead, nothing, not a whisper.
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I found my way to the main office on my break and asked the secretary why no mention was made of Pop’s death.
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“ It was Ms. Smith’s decision,” she replied, matter-of-factly.
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“Well, I would like to speak with her,” I half demanded. As I waited, I became imbued with righteous indignation. I planned on marching in her office and calling her on her callousness. Ms. Smith was obviously tipped off by her secretary, as she greeted me at the front desk wearing her usual stone face.
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“Mr. Hall, what can I do for you?”
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“I was wondering why there wasn’t any mention of Pop’s passing. He was apart of this school, apart the very family that you’re always talking about.
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“Well, we thought that it would be hard on the children.” That was all she said.
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I wanted to ask her then why all the bullshit about being a family, if Pop’s death didn’t mean anything. And, this out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude doesn’t just apply to custodians. It applied to teachers. Last year, Mr. Wolcott, a science teacher, died suddenly, and little was said about it. He just went home at the end of the school day and died. At least he had the good form to wait until after school. After all, everyone hates class overages.
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Browse the twenty year old yearbooks in the teacher’s lounge and what do you see, Ms Mann? You will find only a few youthful replicas of some of the school’s senior staff. The rest are the faces of ghost, long since forgotten. Oh, you can say that former staff’s contribution lives on in the spirit of the school. To that, I say what spirit? Any spirit that the school may have had is dead, as dead as Pop.
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I would have gone on to say, that we were all just nameless, faceless cogs, employed by the machine. That is until we burn out or malfunction. Then, we’re discarded and replaced. One day you and I will be ghost, not to confused with spirits. It wouldn’t be so bad if the system were human, but it not. It’s detached, uncaring and cold to the touch. Ironically, it’s the flesh and blood people that breath life into this school. People like Pop.
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I should have said a lot of things and maybe changed her mind. But, I think that I would have had an easier time convincing a pig to give up pork. So, instead, I just walked away, irritated with my students for not seeing Pop for what he was, contemptuous of the school system for not honoring his memory, and angry at God for turning a death ear to his prayers, and letting him die without a whisper.
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