Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Scoop" by Al Miller (chapter 7)

On the plane ride back, I kept going over and over the details of the story we had written. Then there was a little store where we used to buy all our paper. It was a little Mom and Pop store over by the grade school. Everybody went there from the grade school, but when we graduated to high school, the gathering got a lot smaller. Tommy and I, however, kept buying our supplies there because it was in the neighborhood. The store was probably not there anymore, but maybe I could still find the same paper somewhere else.
As to the school itself, the last I heard, it was closed, but they were thinking of re-opening it as a junior high. Mr. Sharpe was close to retirement when we graduated, so he was probably dead by this time. If he were living now, he would have to be at least a hundred and ten. Not likely, to say the least. If I met him, he would have to be a ghost, just as Tommy had said.
As soon as the plane landed and I made my way into the terminal, I found the nearest public telephone book. Much to my surprise, there was a listing for a Mr. Sharpe. I dialed the telephone and waited impatiently for an answer.
"Hello, Sir. My name is George Wilson. I'm looking for a Mr. Sharpe that used to be the Principal at Henry Clay High back in sixty-two."
"George Wilson. I seem to remember that name from somewhere. Did you graduate in sixty-two?"
“Yes, as a matter of fact. When I left, he was still principal.”

“That would have been my Grandfather,” said the voice. “He’s been dead now for close to twenty years. But I do remember him mentioning your name. Something about an exploding apartment house. Are you that George Wilson?”
“I’m afraid that would be me. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but . . .”
“Don’t think a thing about it. We had a good laugh about it. You’re somewhat of a legend around there. It seems what’s left of that apartment house is still an exhibit in one of the display cases in the hall. My father was a freshman at the time.”
“Speaking of the old school,” I said, rapidly changing the subject, “is there any possibility of getting in? I have an important research project I’m working on and I need to get some information on the place.”
“Well,” answered the voice, “I don’t see why not. My father has the keys to the building. By the way, I forgot to introduce myself. My name’s Jeremy.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting you, Jeremy.”
“How soon do you need to get in, George? How about tomorrow morning?”
“I’m afraid my needs are rather more urgent than that. Would it be possible to get in today? The sooner the better. I don’t mean to be pushy, but would it be possible to meet there right away?”
“Well, I guess so. I don’t have to be at work until second shift. Say in an hour?”

“That would be great. I’ll see you in an hour, then. Let’s meet at the main entrance on the north side of the building?”
“I’ll be there.”
There's an old saying. "You can't go back." If by that you mean you can't become what you were, it's absolutely true. Those high school days were the days of comparative innocence. They were also the days when most of us lost our innocence.
The door to the old high school seemed pretty much the same as always except that it was in need of paint. But when it came time to open the door, it was evident that the years had taken their toll. The floor had begun to buckle and the door required an extra shove just to open it enough to enter. The floor tiles had been shedding for quite some time and were beginning to scatter. Most of the lockers were standing open and the locker doors showed a covering of rust. If this building were to be used as a junior high, it would require a great deal of renovation before the students arrived.
I looked in the old chemistry lab as we passed. One of the teachers had done a demonstration, dropping a sodium pellet into water. The mixture proved a little too unstable. The spot on the ceiling was still there. There were the remains of some old experiments sitting around the lab. A beaker with the white film of long dried up water resting in the bottom. An old Bunsen burner sat on one table, still attached to the petcock where it had once received its gas supply. Everything appeared as though the class had just gotten up and walked out, leaving the equipment just as it was. A coating of dust had settled on everything and there was ample evidence of mouse droppings everywhere.

We continued down the hall. The typing lab was at the far end. I spent many happy hours there, learning how to type from Gloria Aaronson.
"No, George. I said don't look at the keyboard. That'll only confuse you. You have to look at the paper. Teach your fingers to know what key to push without looking at 'em. It's a lot like playing the piano."
"Yeah, but I don't know how to play the piano, either. How'm I supposed to teach my fingers where the keys are when I don't know myself?"
"George Wilson, you're hopeless. Sometimes I think you don't want to learn. Just look at the paper. Besides, there aren't any letters on the keys. It doesn't help to look at the keys."
"That doesn't help either. I just don't think I'll ever get it."
"Just settle down George, or Lance, or whatever pen name you're using this week. Now, concentrate. Just think about where your fingers are. Close your eyes and visualize your fingers on the keyboard. That's right now push the 'A' key. No. That's the 'Q.' Down one row."
"I'll never get this. I'm just too dumb to learn." I was genuinely crying.

"No, you're not, Georgie." Gloria pulled up a chair and sat down beside me. I could feel her warmth next to me and I leaned over against her. She could only reach out and hug me. I have never before or since received a warmer, more sincere hug than that one. For the space of probably five minutes, I balled and Gloria comforted. When it was all over and I headed for home, I wanted to kick myself for not returning the affection that had been so generously poured out to me that day. But boys being boys and unwilling to admit any perceived weakness, I passed it by. I would never have another chance to retrieve that moment.
“I miss you, Gloria,” I said out loud.
“What did you say?” asked Jeremy. He had not shared my thoughts, of course. I started to tell him about Gloria, but I stopped in mid sentence. There was no reason for him to understand such a private moment.
“Just remembering someone out of my past,” I answered finally. “A very dear friend. But what ever happened to the typewriters that used to be in here?”
“The typewriters? Oh, those are long gone. Back in the eighties, they started using computers in the class. They haven’t used typewriters in here since, gee, I don’t know, it must have been around ‘88.”
“Do you happen to know what they did with the typewriters after they took ‘em out of here? I really need one of ‘em. . .  It’s for my research project, you know.”
Jeremy gave me that “Whatsamattawityou” look. Finally he shrugged. “Well, if they’re still here, I suppose they would be in the basement storage area. We could look down there if you like, but I wouldn’t expect to find much.”

Jeremy searched through the set of keys he had brought with him. “I think this may be the one. C’mon, lets find that typewriter.”
I’m certain that Jeremy must have thought me crazy by this time, but he led on. About half way down the hall, I looked toward the stairs. I caught just a glimpse of someone crossing the hall and going down the stairs. Of course the power was off in the building, so we could only see a dim silhouette. “Who could be in here at this time of day?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” answered Jeremy. “I don’t think they’re doing any rehab yet. Probably someone looking for souvenirs.”
When we reached the stairs, we looked down. There seemed to be someone at the bottom, looking up. Then again, maybe it was just the light playing tricks on us. It was much darker in the basement, but Jeremy had brought along a flashlight. “Watch your step down here. There’re still some old desks down here in the hall.”
As we stumbled down the hall, I brushed up against something soft. I recoiled just a bit. “Let me use the flashlight a second,” I requested. As I played the light along the wall, I caught a glimpse of something. But when I retraced the path, it was gone. “Must have been a trick of the light,” I concluded.
We went on toward the storage room, picking our way among the debris. “Here it is. Room twenty-six.” Jeremy tried his key in the lock. It turned after some effort, and the door creaked open. As we passed through the door, the light reflected off something bright onto a wall. I caught the image this time. There was no mistake.

It's difficult to lay your hands on a bottle of whiskey when you’re only fifteen. Difficult, but not impossible. Sneaking it into school was more difficult. I had obtained the whiskey. Tommy smuggled it in.
"I've got the key to room twenty-six," I whispered. "We'll go in there during lunch."
"Did you ever drink whiskey before, George?"
"Yeah, man. Lotsa times. Have you?"
"Oh sure. It's great, really smooth."
It was unthinkable that either one of us could admit that we had never tasted anything like it, but such is the male ego.
Just then, the bell rang, ending the period. Tommy and I went to the lunch room, but as soon as the teacher sat down at his table, we sneaked out the side door into the hall. I looked both ways in the hall.
"Nobody coming. Let's go."
We walked down the hall a little too fast in anticipation of that bottle in room twenty-six. Just as we turned the corner, Miss Minor was coming up the stairs. In somewhat of a panic, we ducked into the men's room.
"Man, that was close," panted Tommy. "You think she knew where we were headed?"

"Don't be silly. As far as she's concerned, we're just walking the halls. I'll look out and see if it's clear." I looked both ways again. "Okay, let's go."
We raced down the stairs and along the basement hall. When we reached room twenty-six, Tommy fumbled with the key until the door finally opened. We found a spot to sit back in the corner and began to share the bottle. The brown liquid burned our throats as it went down, but in spite of the tears it brought to our eyes, we were determined not to admit defeat. Within ten minutes we were both too unstable to stand up, much less walk. First Tommy, then I, finally surrendered to nausea and we both regurgitated what little there was in our stomachs.
Suddenly the door flew open and in walked Mr. Sharpe. I'll never forget the look on his face. He said nothing, but only pointed toward the hall. We stumbled to our feet and promptly fell back down. Calmly, and still not saying a word, he walked over to where we had fallen. He picked up the bottle and sniffed at its contents, though I'm sure it was enough merely to smell the air, for the alcohol was obvious. He took the bottle with him and headed for the door. At the door, he paused and looked back at the two pitiful lumps on the floor. "You two stay here while I get help." The instruction was totally unnecessary since neither of us could have moved far enough to negotiate the door.
Five minutes later, Mr. Sharpe returned with two teachers in tow. Another ten minutes and we found ourselves being transported to the hospital.
The image I perceived was that of Mr. Sharpe just as I had seen him that day when Tommy and I got drunk in that very room. Again he was pointing, but this time his direction was toward the back of the room.

"Did you see that?" I nearly shouted.
"See what?" returned Jeremy.
"Give me the flashlight!" I ordered.
"Yes, Sir!" answered Jeremy in mock military fashion.
I ignored the remark and shined the flashlight in the direction Mr. Sharpe had been pointing. Against the far wall, where Tommy and I had consumed our first whiskey, there were about twenty typewriters. Jeremy had been absolutely correct. He went to pick up one of the machines. "This one looks like it works. Will it do for what you want?"
I inspected the one he had chosen. "No, that's not the one."
"How can you tell? They all look alike to me."
"For the most part they are, but this one is special. It has the letters scratched onto the keys." Gloria had given in to my weakness and marked all the keys so that I could type the way I wanted to. It was her way of saying, "I love you," though I didn't recognize it at the time.
We began to search frantically. First one, then another was inspected, then eliminated as the incorrect one. Finally, with only three machines left, we found the proper one. "Here it is!" I shouted.
Jeremy looked at me as though I was crazy, a position which I was beginning to adopt myself. "You sound like a kid in a candy store. What is it that's so special about this particular typewriter? I'd be surprised if any of 'em work. They've been down here practically forever.”

I paused momentarily. "It's too complicated to explain right now. I'll tell you after the crisis is past." I picked up the typewriter and started for the door.
"Hey look!" interrupted Jeremy. "What's this? Looks like a manuscript."
I stopped dead in my tracks. I had forgotten all about the last story we had written. After a few seconds, I turned to Jeremy. "Bring it along. I may need it later."
We stumbled back down the hall, picking our way past the old desks. Then it was back to the old typing lab. I hesitated going in. This was where I had created this little piece of hell. It was also where I had encountered a little piece of heaven. I whispered a short prayer, asking God to forgive me for being such a complete moron and for making such a mess out of my life. But now there were more urgent tasks, so I went to work.
In the back of the room, some of the old desks were still there, waiting as it were, for someone to sit down and begin typing. I searched among them, looking for a particular clue. "This is the one," I said excitedly.
Jeremy looked at me as though to ask a question. "Yeah. I know,” I said. “Don't ask."
I simply pointed to the desk top. Many years before, someone – I never found out who – had carved a heart into the wood. Inside, they had carved "G. W. + G. A." I must have felt some attachment to it because I always sat at that desk to do my typing.
"I guess I know who G. W. is," said Jeremy, "but who is G. A.? Never mind. Tell me later. I can wait."

I sat at the typewriter and, after making sure it would still do the job, I put in a sheet of the paper I had bought and began to type. I stopped in mid-sentence and turned to Jeremy. "Do you happen to know where you could get a battery-powered radio?" He gave me that funny look again so before he could ask, I replied, "Don't ask. You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
I continued to re-write the story. When I finished, I took it from the typewriter and began to read it over to myself. It was at least a half hour later that Jeremy returned with a small transistor radio. "Have you heard the news lately? There's been some kind of a break through in that mine explosion story they've been running on the news the last couple of days." I continued to read. "Here. I'll turn it up so you can hear."
“ . . . Bob Orr at the scene of the mine explosion in West Virginia. In searching through the archives of the mine records, mine officials have discovered the long forgotten original entrance. It is located some distance from the present entrance. Workers are now on the scene trying to reopen the entrance. Hope is now running high that they will be able to reach the miners in time. Barry Serafin is with the workers. Barry, is there anything new from the old mine shaft?”

“Bob, I’m standing just outside the original entrance to the mine. Some of the older workers tell me their fathers told them about this entrance, but until today, they had never seen it. I walked a little way into the mine a few minutes ago. There is a considerable amount of debris in the entrance. Some is the result of an old cave-in. Some of it appears to have been left behind by some transients who were using it as a home at one time. It will take probably another two to three hours before the debris can be cleared enough to gain access to the mine shaft itself, but rescue workers assure me that within the hour, they will be able to insert some air circulating equipment. This should give at least some relief to the men trapped inside. . . .”
I reached over and turned down the radio. I knew what was going to happen next. I had just written it. “Jeremy,” I said, “I’ve got to go now. The reporter that’s been trapped down there with those miners…”
“You mean this Tom what’s-his-name?”
“Sutherland. He’s a very close friend of mine. Tommy, I always called him. But with the years gone by, I suppose I’d better start calling him Tom. Anyway, I’ve got to get down there where he is. His mother is very sick in the hospital. I’m sure you’ll understand if I rush off.”
“Yes, by all means. You’d better get down there and tend to your friend.”
I left the room on a dead run. I was out the door and into the parking lot before Jeremy could think about what had just happened. He picked up the manuscript I had just written and began to read. “Oh. My. Word!” said Jeremy after reading through it. “What is going on here?” Then he picked up the old manuscript we had retrieved from room twenty-six and began to read it. “George!” he called. “George Wilson. You forgot your other . . .” But I was long gone on my way to the airport.
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