The thin red second hand of the clock swept along without pause, discarded moments urging it forward, forward, forward as if time itself couldn’t wait to get along to the future. But everyone knew there was no future in Medford, Ohio. There was only the weight of the past holding everything down; a past that was heavy and dull and oppressive. And yet the clock pressed on: The minute hand waited for the right instant before leaping and landing squarely on the center of the nine.
The bell rang.
Nine o’clock English and Wheezy Hart was late.
I imagined him in the empty hallway, brittle bones hunched over his worn cane, one hand pressed up against the cool bank of gray lockers, sucking hard on his inhaler before gimping down the hall to the dusty classroom he’s presided over for forty years. Some would call it dedication, I suppose.
To my left, Cynthia Harris painted her nails.
To my right, Dink Saas slept, his head on the desk, his mouth slightly open.
Two minutes after the bell rang, Wheezy Hart walked in wearing his usual wool jacket with the leather elbows; an unfilled pipe clutched in his hand. “Quiet down,” he rasped, as he entered the room. He took a book from his shelf and dropped it with a thud upon his desk.
“What the hell was that?” Dink’s head shot up.
“That, ladies and gentlemen,” Wheezy said, “was Shakespeare.”
“Oh, man,” Dink said. “That stuff’s for girls. What do we have to learn that shit for anyway? Don’t need Shakespeare down in the mines.”
“A man without the friendship of literature is a friendless man indeed.”
“What dope said that?”
“The dope who said that was Wheezy Hart.” He smiled. “Yes, I am aware of my nickname and don’t be under the mistaken impression that your class invented it. Befriend books, Dink. They will always take care of you.”
“Can’t eat books.”
“Books feed the mind where resides a much deeper hunger than the temporary hunger in your belly.”
“That’s just bullshit, Mr. Hart. ‘Sides, a man with mining muscles don’t need no friends.” Dink grinned at me and flexed his biceps.
“The mines will not always be there and you, Dink, will not always have those bulging muscles. Alas.” Wheezy removed his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair before sitting. “Time has a way of stripping away our pretense. You lose your muscles. Your eyesight begins to fade. The color is taken from your hair and your eyebrows. And once the props are all stripped away, you have to look in that mirror and confront who you really are.”
“You scared to die, Mr. Hart?” Dink whispered.
“I find, Dink, that as I get older, death frightens me less. Or perhaps I’ve just resigned myself to it. I don’t have much more life in these old bones.”
“But Mr…” Cynthia capped her nail polish.
Mr. Hart put up a hand. “It’s true, Cynthia. Can’t sugar-coat life. Hearing my words, my elders would protest indignantly that they wish they were my age again. The youth, however, would be indifferent: Look at my life from the perspective of a teenager, and the road looks long indeed. But the young don’t realize that the old and the middle aged wish for life as much as they.” He looked out the window. “So much I wish I could have done. I wish…”
“What do you wish?” Cynthia whispered.
A gentle breeze came in through the open window. I could smell the leaves, dry and musty, that gathered in great piles beneath the oak tree that grew outside the classroom. On nice days, in spite of his asthma, Wheezy took us outside to sit beneath that tree and read us the classics.
He snapped his eyes forward, smiled again. “Regrets are inevitable, Cynthia. As are wishes that won’t come true.” He glanced outside again. “We were supposed to go outside today, but it appears as if the weather isn’t going to cooperate.” He grinned and raised his eyebrows. “Shall we go and bother Mrs. Dimkowitcz? Re-arrange her library books?”
Mrs. Dimkowitcz was no librarian. She was a frustrated designer. She organized the fiction by color rather than by title. When Mr. Hart pointed out her mistake, Mrs. Dimkowitcz told her the kids didn’t bother reading anyway, so what did it matter.
The class cheered and began gathering their things, stuffing their backpacks with iPods and cell phones and notebooks.
“Miss Jackson, I’d like to see you for a moment.”
Cynthia glanced at me; I shrugged my shoulders and stayed in my seat while the rest of the students stood and filed out the door. When the classroom was empty, I brought my eyes to his.
“Ellie, why is it so difficult to get things across to your colleagues?”
“We’re like rubber bands, Mr. Hart. You can only fit so much in before we snap.”
“Assuredly so.” He nodded. “But a little bit of stretching cannot hurt them.”
“Maybe they don’t want to stretch.”
“Have I wasted my time, Ellie?”
“Insisting my students know the classics. Teaching them to speak correctly. Has it all been a colossal waste of time?”
“A man wants to know that his life has counted for something. And yet, what do I leave behind? No wife. No children. No books written. No articles. No songs. No awards. Just hundreds…no, thousands of bored students, staring out the window, wishing they were elsewhere. I always wanted my life to mean something. I wanted my having been here to have meant something to somebody.” He stood suddenly and put his suit jacket back on. “I want to make a difference to somebody, Ellie Jackson.”
“To whom, Ellie? To the kids working down at the gas station after graduation? To the ones setting off dynamite to blast out a new mine? The ones who wait tables at Bitsy’s Diner?”
“I wait tables at Bitsy’s Diner.”
“If I could do it again, I would change everything.” He stared into space, stroking his beard. Then he returned his eyes to mine. “But I can’t do it again, can I? There are no second chances.” He shuffled to the door and paused there. “I’m either doing the best thing I’ve ever done for a student or I’m doing the worst.” Then he turned back to me. “Ellie?”
“Your father is here.”
And he turned and walked out the door.
Then there was a crash and a scream and a running of feet.
And Wheezy Hart died before I got a chance to ask his meaning.