Copyright © 2005 by Jay Braiman
High school felt like a foreign place to her, even though it sometimes seemed like yesterday that she herself had been an eager, bright-eyed co-ed with her whole future in front of her. True, it had been more than a quarter-century since she’d taken the stage in cap and gown, grinned from ear to ear and waved her rolled-up diploma in the air while her smiling parents looked on from somewhere deep in the crowd. And today’s high school certainly didn’t resemble the one she remembered, as she shielded her head from the spring rain with the red gym bag she carried with her. It was only a short walk from the cab to the main entrance.
The glass doors that formed the entrance to Worley High School looked different today than they did twenty-five years ago. To her, they looked different than they did just last week. Everything looked different, sounded different, smelled different. It wasn’t just the dismal weather, the occasional bouquet of withered flowers or the cards, poems and photos tacked to the bulletin boards proclaiming, “We’ll miss you, James,” or some variation thereon. Someone had tacked a headband to one of the boards; another had placed a soccer ball at the base of the wall, with the melted remains of a votive candle standing idly next to it. Caps, t-shirts, compact discs and other assorted items blended with the more traditional written and floral tributes. It seemed odd, what some people would do to express their thoughts about someone.
The school day had ended but a number of students still roamed the halls, for any one of a hundred reasons. This relatively quiet suburban community had plenty for its kids to do inside of school but not much outside; some of the stragglers played on sports teams, others were members of clubs, and some simply had no more appealing place to go at 3:30 on a rainy Thursday afternoon.
For a moment, she had a thought to ask someone where the principal’s office was, not because she didn’t know but because she just wanted to talk to someone, anyone. She’d known a lot of people in similar circumstances who just wanted to be left alone, who took their phones off the hook, closed the shades, locked their front doors, shut themselves off from the rest of the world. Not she. Being alone was the worst thing she could imagine right now. She needed company almost desperately; needed to talk, to laugh, to cry, to be with people. Looking around, she didn’t see anyone she recognized, though she was sure one of James’ friends would be around somewhere. They’d been by the house many times in recent days. They’d called, they’d written, they’d sent cards, they’d seen her at the funeral. They’d put up a makeshift memorial at the site of the accident, and held an informal tribute at school. Yet she knew that time was passing quickly; the condolence cards would stop, the phone would go silent, the visits would end, the world would go on without her, and without James. As difficult as it was to come here, and to do what she had come to do, it was at least an opportunity to get out of that silent, suddenly empty house, if only for a little while.
The last time she’d been to Mr. Williams’ office, he had congratulated her on James’ exceptional performance on the state English exam. They’d discussed beginning his college search by visiting a few local campuses, and had begin compiling a list of schools that might have the right challenging pre-law program for him. None of that mattered now. Somehow she remembered the entire conversation, even though it should have felt like ages ago as she peered through the open door to see the principal seated at his desk.
He looked up and saw her immediately. “Linda,” he said, rising and walking toward the door, “good to see you.”
She smiled and stood by the door, trying to appear strong and as normal as she could. “Hi, Bob, I hope it’s not a bad time.”
“Not at all, not at all. Let me just…” He paused for a moment to pick up a walkie-talkie from a side table, then stepped toward the door and gave Linda a friendly hug. “How are you? Are you holding up OK?”
“Yea, I’m fine,” she replied appreciatively; not entirely true, but relatively speaking, it would do for now. “Just…have to take care of these things.” She held up and nodded toward the red Worley Soccer gym bag that she held in her left hand. It was empty. The numeral 7 had been emblazoned on it by hand in black permanent marker.
“Right. Come with me, it’s number 105.”
They stepped into the long and nearly-empty corridor, a few scattered voices echoing off the terrazzo floors and ceramic-tiled walls, and walked toward the eastern wing of the building. For a moment, out of the corner of her eye, Linda thought she saw two young boys playfully kicking about the soccer ball that had been left at the base of the wall by the school entrance. They were laughing and taunting one another. A loud voice shouted, “Hey!” from an invisible place, then followed, “What’s the matter with you?” She wasn’t sure what followed. She hoped she had been mistaken, that she hadn’t really seen what she thought she had seen. She couldn’t have. They couldn’t have.
Idly, she observed the numbers on the red-painted steel locker doors as she and Mr. Williams walked past. 36…37…38…39… She’d been dreading this all week. She was prepared for the paper and floral tributes she was certain to find on the outside, but had no idea what to expect once that door swung open. 61…62…63…64… A group of boys walked past them in the opposite direction, nodding to Mr. Williams; one of them looked at Linda with eyes that said, Who the hell are you?
Linda felt shaken for a moment. She turned to Mr. Williams and asked, “How have the kids been taking it?”
“Well,” he replied with a heavy sigh, “the grief counselors have been here all week. They were only going to come on Monday, but there were so many kids who wanted to talk about James that they decided to come back again. James had so many friends; he knew everyone.”
“I know,” Linda said, “they’ve been wonderful. They’ve been calling, stopping by the house.”
“They loved him,” Mr. Williams said wistfully. “We all did.”
Linda nodded as they turned left into an adjacent corridor. 80…81…82… In the corner, a boy and a girl stood amorously close together, his head above hers, his arm leaning up against the wall as they whispered to each other, oblivious to the passing adults. The boy, Linda thought, looked a little like James. He was tall, somewhat gaunt but in an athletic sort of way, with a dark, ruddy complexion and sharp facial features. He had thick, arched eyebrows, like James; deep brown eyes, like James; a few thin, dark chin-whiskers, like James. Even his hair was long; not as long as James’, not long enough to cascade down the back of his neck, nor to require a headband to keep the flowing brown locks out of his eyes, but enough to suggest a resemblance. He didn’t have James’ smile, though. No one did.
“We’ll definitely miss that smile of his,” said Mr. Williams, as if he’d just read Linda’s mind.
Linda grinned and suddenly felt sad. She turned and looked back at the boy, watched him kiss his girl and then turned away, a little embarrassed. She felt tears begin to well in her eyes and quickly wiped them dry. She was not going to do this now, not today, not here.
“Here it is, 105,” said Mr. Williams as they stopped in front of the locker door festooned with notes, cards, photos and other expressions of grief. A black-dialed Master padlock hung idly from the latch, just where he’d left it last Friday afternoon. Linda stared at it for a long moment and found herself curiously moved by it. It was such an ordinary object, one among hundreds of identical units securing the belongings of scores of Worley students, but this was the first thing she’d seen in the building that was his, that had belonged to him. She couldn’t help but imagine him squeezing it closed for the last time, maybe having forgotten something inside, perhaps already thinking about the Friday night fun he and his friends had planned, and certainly expecting to dial up the combination again on Monday.
Mr. Williams interrupted her thoughts by asking, “Do you know his combination?”
She took the padlock into her hands and stared at the dial for a moment. “No,” she replied, fiddling with the mechanism as if she could will it to open. No one else knew the combination, no one but him.
“No problem,” said Mr. Williams, picking up his walkie-talkie. “Mr. Burke, come in please,” he spoke into the device, releasing it to wait for an answer and staring into space as if envisioning the party on the other end. There was no response. “Custodian’s office, come in, please.” Still no response. He turned to Linda and said, “Allright, let me go find a custodian to get some bolt cutters. Do you want to wait here?”
“Yes,” she replied immediately. “That’ll give me a chance to read some of these messages.” She set the gym bag down on the floor as Mr. Williams walked away. No rush, she thought, take your time. Looking the locker door up and down, she took a few steps back to observe the sheer volume of messages that had been taped to it by James’ friends, wondering for a moment if she might want to take them down and save them, along with whatever she might find inside the locker. She quickly thought better of it, and made a mental note to remind herself to ask Mr. Williams to save these for her whenever it became appropriate to take them down.
Hesitantly, almost afraid to read the messages and feel the grief and sadness that was sure to accompany them, she stepped back toward the locker and began to read one particular message. As she did, a pair of girls emerged from the far corner of the hallway and stopped in front of a locker, about thirty feet away. They were engrossed in light conversation; in the near-empty hallway it was impossible not to hear them. Neither of them looked familiar, and Linda didn’t really listen; one seemed to be complaining bitterly about a teacher’s response to a paper she’d recently submitted, while the other reacted with congruent disbelief. They were pretty young things, or at least one of them was; tall, blonde, slim, wearing a revealing white halter-top with bare midriff and tight-fitting, low-cut jeans. The other, somewhat shorter and rather more full-figured, had freckles and straight brown hair tied back in a ponytail, and was dressed as if she’d just come from softball practice; pretty in a different sort of way. They both looked for all the world like typical suburban high school girls. There was nothing remarkable or exceptional about either one of them.
Suddenly, however, their conversation grabbed Linda’s attention. The tall blonde asked her companion, “Did you go to that thing they had for James on Tuesday?” Her tone of voice had changed on the word “thing,” as if it was the only word she could think of to describe something patently absurd, and she had hit the name “James” particularly hard, as if it added to the absurdity of the “thing.”
The other girl replied, “No,” in a forceful voice that seemed to endow the word with three syllables, and imply that the blonde’s suggestion was even more absurd than the “thing” itself.
For a long moment, almost instinctively, Linda stared wide-eyed at the two girls, who clearly didn’t notice her and wouldn’t have known who she was if they did. She hoped briefly that one of them would make eye contact, but neither of them did, for which Linda ultimately felt glad.
“Me neither,” replied the blonde, “it was, like, so stupid.”
“I know, like, everybody gets so crazy just because somebody died.”
“Yeah, you know, like, get over it.”
Their words flew rapid-fire through the stale air, ricocheted off the walls and battered Linda’s ears. She closed her eyes and turned away, trying to keep from raising her voice to introduce herself and scold the two young teens. Would they be talking like that if they knew who I was, if they knew I was standing here?
“I can’t believe people put all this ugly crap on the walls. It looks so crappy.”
“I know, like, somebody put a soccer ball and a candle on the floor. That’s like, just so stupid.”
“When are they going to take all this down?”
The sad thing is, Linda thought, yes, they probably would.
She thought she could shield herself from these girls by reading the messages taped to James’ locker. Moving her face close to the surface, she examined one of them intensely, focusing on its words.
“I heard he was, like, totally drunk. He was doing, like, eighty.”
“The car was, like, totally wrecked. His parents must be so pissed that he wrecked the Mercedes. That was such a cool car. It sucks that he wrecked it.”
“He’s lucky the other guys didn’t get killed too. You know, they could, like, sue his parents or something, if they wanted to. I mean, it was their car, he was driving, right? They could sue them.”
“He was such an ugly kid, too. I mean, like, get a haircut already. Who wears their hair like that? He looked so stupid, I swear.”
“I just wish people would stop crying over it, it’s like, so depressing to come in here and this is all you hear about. I just, like, don’t want to come to school because I don’t want to hear about James, James, James.”
“I know, right?”
The sentiments dueled in Linda’s mind as she pored over the notes. She had promised herself she wouldn’t, but uncontrollably, inevitably, she began to weep, muffling her sobs with her hands so as not to attract the attention of the two girls. She couldn’t imagine what she could or would say to them if they noticed her or walked by, or if she encountered them again later. She desperately hoped they would walk the other way when they left. And most unsettling of all, she wasn’t sure which of the two dueling sentiments had caused her to break down.
Suddenly she heard footsteps and the booming voice of Mr. Williams. “Let’s go, girls,” he said, “you’ve got to get out of the hallway. Either go to practice or leave the building.” The girls giggled to each other as the principal walked past, then one made an annoyed remark to the other and they disappeared around the corner, just as Linda had hoped. She hurriedly dried her eyes with her sleeve and picked up the gym bag as Mr. Williams approached, along with a stocky, bearded man in a blue utility jumpsuit bearing a large pair of bolt cutters.
Mr. Williams pointed the locker out for the custodian and then turned to Linda. “OK, we’ll get that open for you…are you OK?”
Still flushed and unable to hide her tears, she replied, “Yes…I’m…I was…”
“You sure you want to do this now? You can come back whenever you want.”
“No, no, it’s fine, I was just…There were…” She glanced over to where the girls had been standing and thought about making a gesture in that direction. Instead she looked up at Mr. Williams and said, “These notes and poems are beautiful. Please don’t throw them out; please save them for me when you take them down.”
“Of course,” Mr. Williams replied.
The bolt cutters made a loud BANG as they snipped the hardened steel arch of the padlock, startling Linda and causing her to jump slightly and place her hand on her chest. As the custodian lifted the broken padlock from its perch and reached for the latch on the locker door, Linda glanced once more at the spot where the girls had been, then took a deep breath and prepared herself for the sight of what her only child had left in his high school locker on the last day of his life.