(Slow down, now, nothin’s so pressing as the need to calm your insides.)
“Miz Meadow? Miz Meadow, ma’am?” Figured next I’d be a’shoutin’ if she didn’t come back to the land of the livin’ right quick.
We was only halfway through the math-a-matics problem on the blackboard up front when sure if she didn’t jest start glazin’ over sideways, eyeballs trained on somethin ‘r other out the window. Nothin’ out there I could see but the soggy gray winter day. Now if they was dancin’ flowers ‘r a whipporwill was a’whippin’ or willin’, it’d be a differ’nt story. Lately, though, her thinkin’ was takin’ over her doin’.
I’ll admit it worries me some.
Now Miss Meadow, she’s been our solo teacher down to the schoolhouse for comin’ up three, no, four years all told. She come in fresh from Teacher’s College up Des Moines way, wide-eyed scared like a beaded on deer. She growed up other side of the state, says she, near the Mississippi. Always said she’d accepted this here post as she’d always wanted to see the world. ‘N then she’d giggle like some little pigtailed girl. Rest of us give a snort, too, seein’ we’d a hard time believin’ Denton Country, Missouri qualified.
Give us all a good laugh ever’ time.
Now she might o’ looked near young enough to be one o’ us kids, but she shore took hold of the reins and settled us all down proper. Miss Meadow, she come up to speed right quick, winnin’ us over right now, earnin’ respect from all us kids, takin’ no guff from the bigger boys what was always trouble, and teachin’ us somethin’ along the way, to boot. That she was a looker, always with some shiny lipstick and brighter than normal cheekbones give folks down to the church some pause, but she didn’t never once come across as better’n anybody, nor smarter, nor worth more neither. And she wudn’t no floozy. No, sir. She never once danced with nobody’s husband at the county mixers, nor none of the cowboys what come to town for the rodeo. Some o’ us students would razz her ever so often to sing a ditty here n’ there, as she’d never hesitated to sing and play the piana down to the school. But no, Miss Meadow seemed satisfied enough to choose the vinyls for Councilman McComb’s record player, studyin’ them careful before makin’ a selection. She was also real good at fillin’ empty cups with punch.
Truth is, once the new wore off, Miss Meadow settled into being just a real fine teacher, a reg’lar ripsnorter when she was educatin’ and instructin’. She fairly lives fer doin’ plays and quotin’ Shakespeare, wavin’ her arms and durned near cryin’ real tears when it’s called for. Normal days, she’s a firecracker, a’Skippin’ to the Loo with the youngsters, guidin’ us bigger ones around and through sonnets and gee-ometry, fendin’ off the wisecracks of Butch and them what sit along the back wall, and plumb ignorin’ the odd belch or tippy tap of a pencil.
And then, come the end o’ teachin’ duties or school board meetin’s or spellin’ tournaments, she becomes an ever’day simple citizen ever’ other hour o’ ever’ other day. She says please and thank you polite-like to ever’one. I’m a witness. She even tries a chat with crotchety ol’ Mr. Conaughay who don’t do nothin’ but sniff and nod, but Miss Meadow, she don’t quit. She carries a purty little basket down to the store where she buys odds and ends and supplies for the hotplate she keeps in her attic room, the one she rents from ol’ Miss Oglethorpe, the county librarian and part time she-devil.
I’ll deny to the death I ever said that. My library card is durned near one o’ my most heavenly treasures.
Facts is facts, though, and we, all o’us, run scared of Miss Oglethorpe, let me tell you. Pointy nose, bristles for hair, icy blue eyes could bore a hole clean through your head. But not Miss Meadow. She never showed no fear whatsoever. Or at least she never let on. Not one iota. Truth be told, she warmed that ol’ biddy right up, makin’ her cookies and surprising the ol’ battle-ax by arrangin’ all them stacks of books in her parlor alphabetically by author and subject.
That’s nearin’ sainthood.
‘Course, the ol’ thing ain’t never let on to anybody else she has a heart. Me, I just leave her be, mindin’ my own beeswax.
So these last couple weeks, ugly ones even for Northern Missouri and Denton County winters, when Miss Meadow’s sunny disposition faded and she began exhibitin’ unnormal behavior, most figured it was the “gray haze.” ‘Round here come dead o’ winter, sky’s gray, dirt roads is gray, what snow we got’s gray, houses and barns and outhouses is all gray. It ain’t no surprise our thinkin’ turns gray ever’ once in a while. Why, even Miss Meadow’s.
Trouble is now, Miss Meadow, she’s even lookin’ gray her ownself, right peak-ed, little green around the gills. She don’t hum, nor let her eyes light up like they used to do. She allows a sad little smile now and again, aimed ‘specially to the younger ones in the desks up front, though even her shiny lipstick don’t make the smile any more genu-ine nor pleasin’.
What troubles me most is the way she’s been a’starin’ off out the window, like somehow she hears the whisper of a hope, a trace of anticipation crosses her brow. But then, it dies away just as quick-like, her brow troubled and eyes fogged, like when a dream what gets interrupted just before the happy endin’.
An unhealthy state of affairs, if you was to ask me.
Ain’t nobody else down to the school really noticed, from what I can tell, ‘cept for me and big sister Luce and cousin Marie-France. Three of us ’bout as close as close can be, age-wise and otherwise. Back when we was kids, we even swore to be forever blood kin, then swore we’d never tell Mama nor Aunt Ellis we swore. We been givin’ each other the skinny eyeball off’n on ever’ time we catch Miss Meadow fade.
Fact is, sister Luce laid claim to bein’ the first to mention the situation out loud.
“Liam? Liam!” Come lunchtime few days past, Luce hissed down at me from her hide-y hole up in the ol’ empty bell tower, the one toppin’ the schoolhouse vestibule. (Bell’s long gone, though. Hit the metal scrap pile for the war effort ‘couple years back.)
Scared the bejeebers outta me, like always, but I wouldn’t dare let on. Gives her too much joy. I peered up through the dust, saw her wispy braids a hanging down ‘fore I saw her dusty mug.
“Liam? What’s got into Miss Meadow? Her brain’s done ate up! Maybe it’s brain maggots!”
That ‘ppeared to give her joy, as well. Now, whether it was true or not, I don’t take kindly to nobody sayin’ nothin’ bad ’bout Miss Meadow, even if there is a shadow o’truth to it.
“Don’t say that, Luce. That just ain’t nice.”
“Don’t you go tellin’ me what I cain’t and cain’t not say!” And with that, she grabbed both sides of the wooden edging around the hole in the ceiling, swinging her whole self through her arms, and landed just like that, right in front of me, puttin’ her nose near to touchin’ mine.
“I think we got us a puzzle, hey, Liam? What d’you say? Ain’t you even curious ’bout what’s goin’ on there?”
She squinted hard, scrunchin’ and wrinklin’ her grumbly face, ” Don’t you tell me you ain’t seen it. Starin’ off into the neverland, payin’ no attention to them wiseacres mouthin’ off back of the room, forgettin’ to erase the board before them pop quizes she favors so. You and me both can fair smell it when somethin’s up. Mary-France, too, I’ll reckon.”
I had to admit, deep down in the lowest, sludgiest parts o’ my gizzard, she was speakin’ true. Miss Meadow, she’d got herself rattled by something.
And in that same deep down sludge of my inside, I reckoned we owed it to her somehow, to help her see it through.
That, and Luce and me and Mary-France, we loves us a good obscurity, and the solution what followed.
I took the bait.
Just like Luce knew I would do.