Without a Whisper
James A. Hall
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Where’s Pop this morning?” I asked. “Is he sick?”
“ 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.
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.
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.
He was invisible.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“Who’s Pop?” their eyes asked, lukewarmly.
“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.
“ 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.
“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.
I found my way to the main office on my break and asked the secretary why no mention was made of Pop’s death.
“ It was Ms. Smith’s decision,” she replied, matter-of-factly.
“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.
“Mr. Hall, what can I do for you?”
“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.
“Well, we thought that it would be hard on the children.” That was all she said.
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.
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.
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.
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.