Monday, Jan. 27, 1987
“Lauren, could you come to my desk please?”
I looked up at Mr. Gilman, more than a little happy to stop re-reading The Outsiders. No offense to S.E. Hinton, but I’d read it before and was hoping for something different. Stupid whole-class reading assignments.
“Did I do something?” I asked as I approached the desk, confident that all I’d done was write the best report he’d ever seen.
I waited for praise to be heaped upon me as I stood next beside him.
“Do you … is there any chance you can stay after school?” he asked quietly. “To talk about your work?”
After school? This was big. Maybe he wanted me to present my report to the whole school and didn’t want to bring it up in front of the rest of class.
“Sure,” I said. “I usually walk home anyway. I’ll just call and let Mom know I’ll be a little later than usual.”
At lunchtime I visited Grace in the front office and asked to use the phone. I was surprised when Dad answered instead of Mom. He should’ve been in the barn still.
“What are you doing home?” I asked.
“Damn gutter cleaner busted. I spent all morning farting around with it, and now I need to go to St. Albans and get a part. Don’t know how I’m s’posed to get anything done around this damn place. Anyway, I thought I’d get an early lunch to take with me, but your mother’s not here. She say anything to you about going out today?”
Dad was in his new favorite mood again. I ignored it and plowed ahead.
“No. She didn’t say anything to me. Maybe she needed something to make lunch or she’s visiting someone. She doesn’t have a car, so she’s probably around close by. Maybe here in the village?”
“Well, I don’t have time to chase her all over the stinkin’ place. Guess I’ll just stop at McDonalds while I’m in St. Albans. I’ll see you later.”
“Wait! Dad. I called you. I need something.”
“You ain’t sick are you?”
A sense of worthlessness crept over me.
“I … no. I’m not sick. But I wanted to let Mom know I’d be home late from school. Can you please leave her a note?”
“Yeah. I guess so. At least one of you’s responsible. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Ok. I lo-”
He hung up.
I wondered about Dad and what was making him so un-Dad-like. It seemed like everything changed when the new year rolled in. Whatever it was, I hoped it’d be over soon.
I missed him.
After everyone loaded onto buses, I went back to Mr. Gilman’s room. He wasn’t there, so I went to the chalkboard and started doodling. I thought he might enjoy a picture of Bigfoot walking under a UFO up on Zadok’s hill.
I was almost done with the silo-shaped spacecraft when Mr. Gilman returned.
“Oh! Hi, Lauren. Thanks for coming,” he said. “Sorry to keep you waiting. There was a line at the mimeograph.”
“Ooo! Can I smell the papers?”
One of the great losses created by technology was the loss of the wonderful scent of mimeograph machine ink. I remember the daily battle to be the kid assigned copying duty. I could’ve stayed in the office all day, running off duplicates of tests and worksheets, inhaling the perfume of the still-drying ink.
Mr. Gilman smiled.
“Not today, Lauren. I want to talk to you about your report.”
My heart leapt. I couldn’t wait to hear his praise.
“First,” he said, “I want to congratulate you on approaching someone more challenging than the big names in town. I absolutely love that you didn’t go after someone obvious for an interview. That’s a really good instinct.”
I sat down at a front-row desk.
“Well, Zadok is so cool,” I said. “He’s had so many neat experiences. I’m really glad I got to talk to him. He gave me the best information about town history. It made writing the report real easy.”
Mr. Gilman followed my lead and sat at his own desk. He shuffled through a pile of papers and pulled out my report. It was covered in red ink and lots of comments. Never a good sign. Plus, there was no grade at the top.
“That’s the thing,” he said, wrinkling his nose and furrowing his brow the way he always did when it was time for a hard talk with one of his students. “What you have here isn’t really history, Lauren. It’s some stories Zadok told you, but that’s about it.”
I felt the floor drop out from under me, and my vision got dark at the edges. Mr. Gilman had just told me how great it was that I talked to Zadok. And now he was turning around and saying it wasn’t good enough?
It made no sense.
“How can you say that?” I asked. “These are all things that happened to Zadok. Things that happened in Comfort Rock. It’s all history.”
Mr. Gilman bobbed his head back and forth a few times.
“Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s history in the sense that, in the past, Zadok claims to have had these experiences or has heard of others having them. But within the greater context … the, uh, bigger setting of Comfort Rock, they’re just stories.”
I pushed my chair back and walked over to the window for some long-distance glaring.
“But what’s everything we’ve talked about in class? Isn’t it all just a bunch of stories?”
“Same answer as before. Yes and no. History is made up of stories, but there’s connective tissue that places them in a larger context. Look, take George Washington crossing the Delaware. Great story, right? He’s taking his men across this great, icy river in the dead of Christmas night. There’s your story. But why were they crossing? What made the crossing so important? What happened as a result?
“There’s your history.”
I turned and looked at Mr. Gilman.
“And you’re saying my report doesn’t have that?”
“Yeah, Lauren. I’m sorry, but I am saying that. You’ve got some pretty non-traditional topics for history. Bigfoot, Champ, ghosts, UFOs, and so on. And I gotta tell you … my history teacher would’ve called my parents in if I’d handed in an assignment about those topics. Probably would’ve gotten my knuckles rapped with a ruler. But that’s not me. I don’t want you to change your topic. I just want you to round it out. Fair?”
No. I didn’t think it was fair at all.
“I guess so. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do to make it better, though.”
Mr. Gilman walked over and sat on the desk behind where I stood.
“I’m going to give you a name, ok? I want you to talk to this person, show her your report, tell her what we talked about here. If you do that, she’ll be a huge help. Can you do that?”
I turned to him and shrugged.
“Sure. It’s due on Friday, though. Will I have enough time?”
“Between you and me, I’m extending the assignment. Probably three-quarters of the class hasn’t even done their interviews yet. I’m gonna let them sweat it out a bit on Friday, and then I’ll give the extension. You’ll be fine. Just don’t tell anyone about it.”
I wasn’t special anymore. Not only was my report not the masterpiece I thought it was, but now I was in the same boat as most of the class, needing a stupid extension. I wished I’d just picked someone boring to talk to.
“Who do you want me to talk to?”
“Her name is Cordelia Cooke. She’s a member of the historical society, but she couldn’t make it when they visited class last week. She specializes in folklore, and she’s even had a couple of articles published in history magazines.”
“Folklore? Like, fairies and stuff? What’s that got to do with anything Zadok told me?”
Mr. Gilman looked at my drawing on the chalkboard and smiled.
“Maybe you can tell me after you talk to her. Or better yet,” he said, handing me my report, “maybe tell all of us.”
To be continued …
THE COMFORT ROCK CHRONICLES IS AN ONGOING SERIES OF SHORT STORIES ABOUT A FICTITIOUS VERMONT TOWN, AN AMALGAM OF ALL NORTHWEST VERMONT HAS TO OFFER. COMFORT ROCK HAS BEEN GROWING IN MY HEAD FOR WELL OVER 20 YEARS. I REALLY LIKE THE FOLKS WHO CALL COMFORT ROCK HOME, AND I HOPE YOU DO TOO.