In a cold, empty room, down
in the basement, the janitor
had rigged up an old buffer
from the shoe factory – it was
a whitewashed room, the walls
made of blocks of limestone –
a room with nothing else in it,
only the bare concrete floor,
and a pair of windows level
with the playground, that let in
some light – and when we had
to stay after school, because
we had done something wrong,
and after we washed the boards,
two of us would lug the erasers
down the stairs in a wooden box,
and switch on the old buffer,
and take turns holding the erasers
against the revolving wheel.
All the words that had been
written on the board that day,
all the numbers, all the names
put up there and talked about
and then erased, all the letters –
all of that whiteness came back
for just a moment, swirling
around us. There was only
the motor's dull electric hum
and a cloud of billowing dust
that felt strangely cool and soft,
and settled on us like a whisper.
We could stick out our tongues,
and catch it, like snow. It tasted
like a room filled with nothing,
nothing at all. Then it was time
to climb back up the stairs,
and go home, and not tell anyone.
After the new high school went up
and they finally got around
to tearing down the old building,
they came at last to the big shaft
where the steam heat had been
delivered to all the classrooms
through a system of pipes
that reached up three whole floors.
And they discovered, scattered
at the bottom, in a windowless
inner chamber where the pipes
converged, pieces of a skeleton
later determined to be that
of a janitor, Ralph Lee Doan,
who had turned up missing
twenty years earlier. Back then,
everyone – especially his wife,
Dotty – thought he had skipped town
and assumed a new identity.
it was explained, by the coroner,
who didn't have much to go on,
that instead, Ralph had crawled
into a heating tunnel, probably
looking for a leak, and had lost
his footing, and fallen head first
down three stories, and broken
his neck. It was after Labor Day
when he was reported missing.
School had just started. The place
where he landed was next door
to the woodworking shop, and
the glue they used already smelled
like a pile of dead horses. Ralph
blended right in, and later, when
the heat was turned on, he got
slow roasted. The rats and mice
did the rest.
Twenty years later,
when they brought the bones out,
his wife, who had never remarried,
agreed to claim him, and arranged
for a proper funeral. Fortunately,
she didn't have the whole story.
Edith Whitcomb, English teacher,
who had never married, and who
in a fit of jealousy – because she
found out Ralph was also doing
the girls' gym teacher – Edith
had slammed Ralph in the head
with a plaster bust of The Bard
only minutes after they did it
for the last time on top of her desk
with the door wedged shut. Ralph
had just made the serious mistake
of telling her he probably wasn't
coming back anymore. That's when
the bust came down on his skull.
Edith found she had the strength
to pry the grate off the air shaft,
and she was still mad enough
to lift Ralph up and tip him into
the shaft before he came around.
For a long time Edith assumed
she would get caught and be given
a life sentence or maybe even
the electric chair.
they found him, she was still
on the faculty of the high school
now located in the new building
and still teaching Shakespeare
with a year to go before retirement.
“Out of this nettle, danger,” was
the line she gave to her students
to memorize, the day the news came
about the bones in old building –
“we pluck this flower, safety.”
She even took a personal day off
to attend Ralph's funeral, and
go stand by his grave, and toss in
a handful of rose petals. When
the others were gone, the widow,
Dot Doan, walked back to the gate
with Edith, and told her how much
she appreciated seeing a familiar face
from the school – somebody who
still remembered, after all those years.
It was never anything we really wanted to do.
There was always so damned many of them.
When we went out to milk, in the dark hours
of the morning, they'd swarm through the stalls,
and to keep from stepping on them my uncle
would get tripped up and like to break his neck.
They just got into everything. You remember
when Grandpa fixed a place up in that room
over the tool shed, he claimed all them cats
made such a racket up and down those stairs
he never could get a decent night's sleep.
Dad would say when it was time. All us kids –
there must have been seven or eight of us,
with some from the next cove, tagging along –
we'd stuff that week-old litter in a sack
and take it all the way to the trestle bridge
down by Hamish Henley's place, and give it
the old heave-ho. I remember Miz Henley,
with her stringy hair and her hatchet face,
she'd come out and shake her broom at us,
and we'd call back and sass, and make fun,
and all the time that sack would be bubbling,
bubbling like Moses down among the reeds
and bulrushes, except no Egyptian princess
was ever going to come along and rescue
them poor little orphans. But back when times
was tough, you had to do some hateful things.
After a while, with all of us standing there
on the bridge, it was like a hush might come
over everything – and then Buddy-Anne
or one of the little kids would start whining
about them poor baby kitties down in the creek,
and we'd have to take them over to the ford
to go wading, and drop a nickel in the water,
so they'd find it, and stop crying, and forget
all about them cats.
I was asking Buddy-Anne
just the other day if she had any conception
of how many litters of cats we throwed off
that bridge when we were kids? And she got
all upset. “That never happened,” she said.
“I don't know what cause you got to come
in here telling tales of that sort. You ought
to be ashamed.” And you know, with her heart
the way it is, and her condition and all,
I thought maybe I better drop the subject.
“You're right,” I told her. “Most likely
I just imagined the whole thing. Probably
weren't nothing at all like the way I said.”
“Weren't but a few,” she said. “I know,
because I was there. I would remember.”
“Sure you would,” I said. That's how we left it.
Joe Peace Returns
This was back in the mid-Seventies. I was on my way out to Knightstown.
Saw this hitchhiker standing on the entrance ramp with a faded duffle bag
and a scuffed-up guitar case. Pulled over. “Headin' for home,” he said,
“up towards Anderson.” I back-tracked, turned north, and proceeded up I-69.
We got to talking. He had spent five years on the road, singing in lounges.
A troubadour. The lounges were mostly connected with motels, he said,
not really clubs, but places where people stopped for a drink, after work,
or on weekends. Places where you could rent a room for a few hours.
He played guitar and accompanied himself, doing mostly Sixties stuff –
songs about peace and freedom, and getting along with your neighbors,
trying to love everybody. “'Course, the war was still on,” he said,
“over in ‘Nam, but it was winding down. That sort of thing was in the air –
that's why I called myself ‘Joe Peace.'” “How'd it work out?” I asked.
“It went real good for a couple of years,” he said. “But I had to keep moving,
finding new places to play, out in Kansas and Oklahoma. Last August
I had this gig in a roadhouse down in Rolla, Missouri. And then one night
these six or seven guys come in. They looked tough. Pipe-liners, maybe.
You could tell by the tattoos and the scars on their arms, most of them
had been in ‘Nam. And they didn't have no women with them, either.
A couple of them was black. Big dudes. One might have been an Indian.
They sat there for a while, drinking and talking, smoking, glancing up
now and then. Seemed interested in what I was singing. Then all of a sudden
they rushed over and grabbed hold of me and headed me out the door.
Manager was off somewhere. Bartender looked the other way. I thought
It's all over now. They took me out in the alley, shoved me against a wall,
stood around me in a half circle. I thought, Here it comes, I'm going
to get the holy shit kicked out of me. ” At this point he took out his front teeth,
in the form of an elaborate partial plate, and showed them to me. “Stomped,”
I said. “Got you down and took turns kicking you.” “No way,” Joe said.
He put the plate back in. “'Course, that's what I thought was going to happen.
No, I lost my front teeth, must have been a couple months later, in Kansas City,
fell down the stairs one night, dead drunk. Landed on my face. No, my friend,
they didn't lay a hand on me. One of them said, Joe, it won't work no more.
All this talk about wantin' to teach the world to sing. All this stuff about love.
It's not going to cut it. We been there, Joe. We saw it all come down.
It's time to move on, Joe. You need something else to get happy about.
You catch our drift, Joe? Them days is over now. You got the picture?
I said I got the picture.” We drove on for a while. “I got it fine,” Joe said.
“No more Joe Peace. No more songs about what the world needs now.
That's why I'm coming home. That's why I'm going back to Anderson.
Get me a place, find some kind of job. I'm good with lawnmower engines.”
“It could have been worse,” I said. “They could have stomped you.”
“Now you're the one that don't understand,” he said. “If they had of,
I wouldn't of believed them. I would have thought I was the victim,
you know? That I was some kind of martyr. When I got out of the hospital,
I would have gone right on being Joe Peace, spreading the good news,
trying to find some angle, some way to make a percentage on my bad luck.
But this way there was nothing I could say. No point in arguing with them.”
We drove on and I thought about it for a while. “Them old boys
was pretty sly,” he said. “There's more than one way to skin a cat.”
“What are you going to do now, Joe?” I asked. “Settle down,” he said.
“Live and let live. Never was that much good of a singer anyhow.”
I turned off at the Anderson exit and circled around in an empty lot
next to a White Castle. He got the duffle bag and his guitar case
out of the back seat. “Thank you, my friend,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Don't you worry about old Joe Peace, either. He'll get by. Better believe it!”
Jared Carter's poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, The Nation, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, and other magazines. The recipient of several awards and fellowships, he has published three books of poetry with the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Please visit his web site at www.jaredcarter.com. Additional poems may be found at http://poetry.poetryx.com/poets/7/.