Her Beautiful Oldness
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Her Beautiful Oldness

 Jerald Matters
 Jerald Matters
Her Beautiful Oldness
by Jerald Matters  FollowFollow
There's really no way to make my bio interesting since I've done absolutely nothing of note on the Earth, I almost saw Led Zeppelin in Pittsburgh...read more once -- does that count? I'm a behavior analyst and teacher with degrees up the ass and some days they make me clean poop..But it's not so bad. I turned one horrifying work experience into a story for "The Evergreen Review". Another essay to a journal called "Out of Chaos. Did some work as a reporter. Edited a small weekly in Tidewater Virginia. I don't know. It's the little things in life that make you happy, I suppose.
Her Beautiful Oldness
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I DID SAY she had a face like the Wicked Witch of the West, but I didn't mean anything by it. I was only going with what she had out there. She had a nose, pitted and drop-tipped, a pair of glasses. The rest of it was under a black habit maybe fifty layers thick and hanging to her ankles. Sometimes I'd glimpse these pointed black shoes.

Sister Vivian might have been scary if you weren't laughing at her getting all serious trying to teach us something. She never showed a tooth, but every once in a while she'd slip up and start cackling at our antics, with this little-bad-girl way of covering her face with her hands when she knew she shouldn't be laughing. And we'd cackle back to her in the same laugh we had already made famous in the school. This always got her to raging and threatening the class with a ping-pong paddle. It was great.

Our seventh period eighth-grade English must have been her class from hell. I was probably the worst because I'd do most anything to get her mad. I thought she was hysterical when mad. I'd push until I could get her arthritic fingers to twitch and her head to start shaking. I'd wear the woman down to shrieking stuff from out of the nineteenth century: “You boob!” “You bone-headed nincompoop, you!” “Lummox!” I really couldn't be satisfied until she came at me with her ping-pong paddle. It was a trip watching her try to control us with a ping-pong paddle. No one else dared try to paddle us with anything, but Vivian didn't care about lawsuits and student rights. She taught us like it was back in the 1950s.

Her class was a little world of its own. That's when you know your teacher is old, when you go back a few centuries every time you walk through the door. Even the smells were of the olden times, like kindergarten days with white paste that no one uses anymore, and wax, and there's a touch of cinnamon and iodine in the air somehow, all without a reason, all lost soon after entering. I even liked the near-taste of the plastic signs she had hanging everywhere, signs admonishing us to be good and to read. I would never have admitted to enjoying the sound of her voice when she read us stories. It was such an old voice, and just as deep as a man's voice.

I heard it from five people several different times and couldn't believe any of them. I couldn't believe people just fell out like that. The guys said Vivian was at her desk doing fine, fine as in any other Vivian day, and just fell out on the floor. For no reason at all. Martinez was with me at lunch and said he saw her drop dead without a sound. I said people don't just die like that in real life. They make noise. They roll around on the ground and stuff. He just shrugged as he ate.

“Didn't even make a sound,” Martinez said again, shaking his head slowly but the excitement shining in his eyes. “Everybody just stood looking at her. And we weren't bad like your seventh period, so it couldn't be a heart attack.” He was ripping and chewing on a fillet topped with ketchup and spitting the clear wiry bones out on his plate and sometimes on the table. I munched on a fry like nothing of the day had bothered me.

“Maybe she just fainted, dude.”

“Naw. They don't drag you out to the hospital for you fainting. Three guys from the ambulance and strap, click, boom. Gone. Sister Ellen comes in and puts stuff up on the board like we're supposed to do it and pretend nothing even happened. Second period is like, whatever you tell them to do, they do. You see their heads going back and for copying shit down. And I was like, 'why don't anybody say anything? Why we gotta do this bullshit?,' and they shush me, man. The girls take over the class and tell everybody how to act. Start crying and carrying on like they weren't talking shit about the woman just the other day. And Ms. Frizzy with the hair coming in to talk to us like we scared. I tell her, I hunt deer since I was ten. What's the difference, a dead deer or some old lady laid out? She dead, get over it.”

“Not if they revive her.”

He smirked. “They can't revive her. If they revive her, she'll be a vegetable. She'll just be drooling all the time.

“Let's go to the forest,” he said. “I need to smoke this cigarette.”

We had fifteen minutes, and hadn't been caught in the forest yet.

Outside it was brisk but sunny and calm for November and we went out by the forest as we called it, a stand of pine past the parking lot, so we could light up without being seen. I felt better in the rush of nicotine and now we both had more to say. He wasn't so casual about her collapse when he got to talking about how small she'd looked lying face-down on the floor, almost like a kid, really, or maybe something inhuman in a big, black, pleated robe. Like the ghost thing, he said in his wacky way, where you got a black robe and nothing in it but maybe a skull looking back at you. He tossed his butt and dragged it in the dirt with his shoe up and down and side to side.

“But that's all right,” he was saying. “All good for the religious folk. Here you are an organism, man, when you get down to it. Nothing but an organism in a robe. And there you go with your crucifix, same as anyone else.”

“I don't care about her crucifix, or her freaking old bones, or any of that.”

“I don't care, neither.

“But yeah, it was like bones in a bag, man. And no blood. Like beyond pale, like  grey. All grey in the face and leathery hands, like a vampire got a hold of her and sucked out all the blood. Messed up.”

“Zombie nun,” I said. I imagined her on the floor, eyes suddenly popped open, and getting up slowly, clutching a ping-pong paddle.

“Tell you what though: That ain't coming back.” He nodded to himself.

Images of her dead and drained, and back again to scary life, stayed with me as we doubled back to the side door near the library. I had to stop along the way to look in through the dark windows of Vivian's room.

“Still nobody picked up her chair,” Martinez remarked. The teacher's chair had fallen onto its side and somehow no one had thought to right it. Nor had they washed the blackboard which still shown ladder-like diagrammed sentences I couldn't read from here, but could tell had been written in her perfect, rounded handwriting. We had projectors and white boards and even a pair of computers in the back of the room, but Vivian had never used those things, always the chalk and blackboard.

“She'll be back,” I said to him, to myself, to no one. She had to be back. It wasn't right to let us hang.

The principal at the closing announcements told us Vivian was still alive and recovering in the hospital, and that we needed to pray for her. Mom said the same useless thing that night after dinner. She came up to my room looking all worried like I was totally broken down over the thing. She said Vivian had had a massive stroke and wasn't
expected to get back to teaching. She stood in my bedroom doorway, waiting for my reaction. “Go away,” I told her. I was trying to play World of Warcraft on my computer and now all I could think about was how Vivian's vein had burst like a pipe in her head and all her blood had gone down into the crevices of her brain and maybe into the spinal cord or something. It was so real to me I almost got sick at the thought. Two tiny white lights flashed once near Mom's head.

“The school asked us for our prayers and donations and I told your father, 'You know, we really should give something in her name.' I know she was your favorite teacher. You talked about her all the time.”

“That's because she looked like chicken butt.”

“All right, Jerry. Now listen. Some of your classmates are saying...some of the parents...they want to get a group together to see her at the hospital.” She paused way too long while I ignored her. “Maybe that might be too much for her at this point, I don't know. What do you think?”

“Why would anybody want to see some old person all curled up in a hospital? Hospitals suck.”

“Come on.” Now standing in my face with her arms folded.

“No, Mom, seriously. That time we went there for Dad's thing? It was like smelling farts the whole time. It was like the whole place was filled with farts and people peeing everywhere. And they'd tried to wash it away with bleach to make it look good, but it only half worked. It's sickening. No one should have to go to that.”

“Oh, all right, Jerry, whatever, we don't have to go. We can pray for her. Maybe that'll be enough.”

Like that was supposed to do something.

She left me alone then, after I had already lost a level on the game. I didn't want to play or do anything anymore, and I thought, I'd pray for her. I'd pray she'd just die so she wouldn't be a vegetable.

I am running through the empty white corridor. No signs, no smells, nothing familiar, yet I know I am in Saint Vincent's Hospital. A white van pulls up beside me.

Without a side door, I see. Inside are crouched Jessica and Karen from Vivian's class and they yell, “Hurry up. You're going to be late.” And I think, why are they talking to me? I'm sure I'm a clown to these girls. Anyway, they're gone, and at the end of the corridor, through an open door, I see the side of a metal bed covered in white sheets. Suddenly, I am in the doorway. At first glance, she seems to have no eyes. Inserted into her nose, a clear tube connected in an arc to the wall. Never seen her hair before, iron gray and curled in a tight roll around her head. Vivian looks so different out of her habit. I recognize her by her nose, I think. Only then do I notice a young nun sitting beside her wearing the old-fashioned habit of the kind Vivian and only Vivian wore, and is now without. In silence, the nun stands and moves back into the shadows.

“I'm glad you're dead,” I hear myself say. “You were the worst teacher, ever.” I like the way it hurts coming out. I want to say it again. I want to shout it in her face and swear it by her Christ. Her eyelids draw up slowly, revealing large, watery eyes. How is it she's beautiful? She's ugly. Old and ugly. Her mouth is like a sunken dry stream bed, thin and pale pink, crisscrossed with tiny brown cracks. Her skin like tissue paper. How can she be beautiful? I suddenly see myself from weeks ago sprinkling chalk dust into her water. I hadn't wanted to do it. I did it for the guys, for their laughter. Anything for their laughter. And now the guilt, the guilt you caused us. That's why. Forever and ever, the guilt I got to pay now because of you. Say something then. You see me standing here.

Call me a boob then. Crack my knuckles with your ping-pong paddle so I can laugh at you again.

Suddenly at her desk in her classroom of no temperature, no smell of cinnamon or plastic signs. She's once again in her habit. Oddly comforting, this Medieval dress. I cannot believe I could have asked such a question of an old woman. She doesn't wonder aloud why I would ask or seem to think it improper. No expression at all on her face, only her mouth working in that oldness way as she silently writes the number 74 in red on a bright white surface I presume to be paper. She underlines the number twice. She had always marked our papers in red ink. She slowly puts the paper in an open desk drawer and leaves it open. Something is missing somehow. I know this feeling. I don't know why. And still I cannot cry, but stand in silence. And she is silent.

I felt the world outside stirring in the black grip of January. The room was cold, the sheets were wet. “You're going to be late,” Mom was yelling from downstairs, anxious as always.

“I'm not going to school today, Mom. I'm sick.” I couldn't stand the thought of it. The noise and the constant embarrassment; the raw, hateful madness sometimes. I'm hideous with these zits on my nose. I'd embarrassed myself so badly with Karen and her friends anyway; there's no point. Everyone was having sex now, but for the social retard. I wished we were still in seventh grade or in Vivian time again and just a class of boys and girls having fun, nothing serious. Vivian took her whole olden days world with her, didn't she? Like it didn't even exist.

I would have told Mom what I'd dreamed, but it was like a wall to get over to even put into words. I knew anyhow the wall was keeping the words that shouldn't be spoken. Not that it mattered.

It didn't matter anymore. She knew I couldn't have helped being hateful for fun. She knew damned well what I was all about and what I really thought. And I knew she had loved me, too, even if it was a secret between us. Even if she'd been about the last thing anyone would see as beautiful, I always knew.



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