There was a telephone booth somewhere near the Variety Store back then, a telephone booth I hardly ever used. There was no need really–I lived just three blocks from school and downtown, even though as a teenager those three blocks seemed like an awfully long walk.
Last night I brought donuts to school, my treat, first donuts all semester, but not the first treat in my teaching life. I swear I paid more for this batch than I did for any other in 41 years of teaching; but this time, even more than last May when I officially retired, I told myself I would never step into a classroom again, never. To celebrate, I didn’t get day-olds. And they were loved.
The kid who used that pay phone was tall and stringy. I remember when he’d pitched little league for another team from another town. Our coach told us it was going to be a tough game because Van Stelle was their chucker, and Van Stelle could throw heat because he was big enough to eat a bale of hay. But Van Stelle was on our team now because he’d come to high school in Oostburg. Van Stelle needed a ride home after basketball practice. That’s why he used the pay phone. Once upon a time, I was there with him.
I got a note from the administration about teaching evaluations and an official-looking envelope full of them in my campus mail: “what can the instructor do to improve the course next year?” You know, that kind of thing. I told my students it was a little ridiculous to make them fill it out because there wasn’t going to be a next time. They said, “chuck ’em.” So I did. Right then and there they went in the circular file.
Van Stelle picked up that pay phone, dialed his number, waited for the bleating to stop and someone on the other side to pick up the phone, and then yelled–seriously, yelled, “Come get,” into the receiver, thereby saving the dime it would have cost to make the call. Something in the phone went out if you didn’t jam a dime in once your party answered. “Come get,” he yelled, and the call quit just like that, but he’d got the message to his folks out in the country and soon enough they’d show up. “Come get,” he’d yell. Saved a dime.
After the students departed, a quarter of a donut was left, along with one wonderful donut hole. I don’t know if they were being considerate–I doubt it; but it was nice of them to leave me just that much. I’m supposed to be on a diet, self-imposed. I went in to get my blood checked last week and tipped the scales ridiculously high. Still, it was my last night in a classroom. I couldn’t break open a bottle, so a couple of donut holes felt like a Calvinist bacchanalia.
Whether or not Van Stelle ever got home wasn’t the exact memory my brain had somehow tethered to that Variety Store phone booth. That’s not what came to mind when the words, strikingly, came into my head. There was another visit, and I was there for a long time, I remember.
My wife was in town, waiting for me to call. I swept up the papers, walked around the room and grabbed what was left from a semester’s worth of refuse, and tossed it all in the can, right there with the student evaluations. Then I pulled on my vest, took my cell out of my pocket, held it just a minute, and suddenly, out of nowhere, there came into my head this odd un-beckoned mantra: “Come get!”
I was a junior in high school and I’d never gone on a real date. A kid named Bob had told me in no uncertain terms that this girl from another high school, not far away, had made it perfectly clear that if I called her and asked, she’d say yes. My people had talked to her people–that kind of thing. It was a foregone conclusion, is what I remember. I had every indication that if I had the courage to pick up that pay phone, get this girl on the other end, and talk to her, a cheerleader in fact, she would for certain say yes. Slam dunk.
“Come get,” my brain said when I stood there in that empty classroom, cell in hand. “Come get.”
Back then I was 16 years old, and everything had been arranged. Supposedly there was no drama, but I’ll never, ever forget standing with Bob outside that phone booth, that same Variety Store phone booth, my nerves running so much power I could have grabbed a snapped power line and never missed a beat. “Go on,” Bob said. “Want me to dial the number?”
I did it myself, right then and there.
I stood alone in a classroom on the last night I ever will, stood there with my cell phone, and for some dumb reason my weary brain threw “Come get” at me, out of nowhere, a hard, high one with as much velocity as Van Stelle throwing heat on the Gibbsville sandlot diamond. I punched in the numbers, and for some unknown reason was flung back to a night on Main Street, standing just outside a phone booth, my nerves running sprints.
Forty years ago I married a different cheerleader, and all of that high school drama is so far back it could have happened sometime before the glacier melted and left field stones buried in the river bottom sand beneath our new house, I swear. So long ago, you’d think that ancient story would have simply flattened into nothing at all beneath the sheer weight of a lifetime’s experience.
But there it was. “Come get,” freed from the recesses of a brain whose operation, just like yours, is somehow beyond our ken.
Who knows what lurks in those synapses? And who knows why?
But last night, for just a moment at which it had no business reappearing, a goofy echo from the ancient past offered me an unscheduled trip back to Main Street, Oostburg, an entire half century ago. For no reason at all. It was just there, like a vision. Bedazzling brain choreography.
So when I hit the light and shut a classroom door for the very last time, I couldn’t help but giggle.