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A Rose in November
Mizhowlinmad (HBF), 2010
Summary: Another look back into Murdock's young life, from the perspective of one of his former teachers. Response to ATSB "Olfactorily Challenged."
Disclaimer: TAT belongs to SJC and Universal. This is for fun and a little "sniff" of nostalgia on my part.
The name of the facility was Shady Creek. But there was no creek anywhere near the place; only a little drainage ditch out back which infrequently flowed with brackish water, and the only shade was provided by a pair of tenacious willows which somehow refused to die in the desert heat.
Rose envied those trees. Wanted to be them. They were outside, at least, and she was not.
She felt all of her eighty-three years this morning. Her feet, always an arthritic trouble spot, were knotted with pain, worse than usual. The trembles in her arms and legs were getting worse too, and then there was the cataract in her left eye…
Her sons had sent her here to die. There was no other way to put it.
In her favorite ratty old chair by the window, Rose picked up a worn paperback, glanced at the title, shrugged. Anne of Green Gables. She'd already read the book a dozen times since she'd been here. There simply wasn't much of a library on the premises, and no one ever came to bring her additional reading material. Even a crossword puzzle might have kept her occupied.
At least, she thought, the overworked staff were attentive and friendly enough. Her friend Myra, who now lived at Two Oaks, had told her she was lucky to have at least that small comfort.
So, that left at least another hour before lunch. What was she going to do until then?
The answer came suddenly in the form of a sharp knock on her door. The staff gave the residents that courtesy as well.
"Who is it?" Rose asked, even though she thought she knew the answer already.
"Miss Chatelaine?" Surprisingly, the nurse pronounced her name correctly. "May I come in?"
Rose didn't recognize the young blonde ponytailed woman in the pastel scrubs. Of course, the staff turnover rate at Shady Creek was high. There was a boy of maybe eight years at the nurse's side. He looked bored and fidgety.
"Miss Chatelaine, this is Mark," the perky nurse announced. The boy said nothing. "You had signed up for the Children's Learning Center meet-and-greet program last week, right?"
Her memory raced, and not nearly as fast as it once had. Today was Thursday, wasn't it?
"Yes…" Maybe it was Friday?The days blurred into one long stretch after a while in this place.
"Oh, good." Perky Nurse said. "Mark is going to spend some time and get to know you today, aren't you, Mark?"
Mark, for his part, looked like he'd rather be attending his own funeral. He scowled.
"I'll leave the two of you to get to know one another. Have to go check on Mr. Leibowitz next door, but I'll be back." The door closed behind her, and the old woman and the young boy were alone.
Robotically, Mark removed a crumpled piece of paper from his backpack. He murmured something in a low voice, looking down at his sneakers the whole time.
"I can't hear you if you don't speak up, sonny." Rose spoke in a surprisingly strong voice. Seeing his non-reaction, she shuffled closer to him. "Really, I don't bit," she added, clacking her dentures together as a bit of a joke.
Finally, the boy looked up at her. His nose wrinkled.
"You smell weird."
Rose couldn't help but laugh. "It's rosewater, hon. Just like my name," she said, more of her Texas twang coming through. That always happened when someone made her laugh.
Mark's expression changed from a scowl to a look of slight embarrassment. "Oh, sorry…I mean…it does smell kinda weird."
"No offense taken," Rose assured him. Compared to some of the heady scents many of Shady Creek's other residents wore, it was comparatively tame. And she was so glad for the company, she didn't really care about being insulted. It beat being ignored by a stretch.
"I'm supposed to ask you about stuff that happened when you weren't old," Mark blurted out, producing a gnawed pencil from his pocket.
Rose smiled. Five decades of being a teacher had taught her a great deal, and one thing she knew was that boys Mark's age always said exactly what was on their minds. "Did you have something in particular? Or would you like me to tell you a story?"
The boy shrugged his little shoulders. "I dunno. The lady at the center said you were a teacher." From the way he said it, Rose had the feeling that his experience with the teaching profession had not been good thus far. And he came from the Children's Learning Center.
"Let's see," Rose said, walking slowly back to her chair and beckoning Mark to join her. Surprisingly, he did. "I was a teacher for a long time. And I had lots and lots of students, some just like you. But every teacher seems to remember one or two of those students. They stay with you." She was glad to talk again. It was just like school days. Mark watched her tentatively, but she could tell he was interested nonetheless.
"Way back, had to be thirty years ago, I knew this boy…how could I forget him…and he thought the rosewater smelled funny too…"
She turned in place. The voice was the school principal's. He was hurrying down the corridor, looking slightly absurd as he did so.
"Good morning, sir," she said, trying to hide her smile. Mr. Gilchrist was a head shorter than she was, and his cheeks were flushed from the short sprint. He looked like a balding, bespectacled chipmunk.
"Miss Chatelaine," he huffed, "they did warn you about that boy, didn't they? Surely you'd rather be teaching your fourth graders?"
She had thought about it. She'd miss Eddie, Francine, Steven, Julie, and her sixteen other students dearly. But they'd see her at lunch and recess, and they'd be in good hands with Mrs. Archer. This was her sole assignment now, and she'd accepted it. "Oh, Mr. Gilchrist, he's just a boy. How bad can he possibly be?" she laughed, flinging her free hand in the air.
The principal glared at her from one side. "You're talking about a boy who, in the last year, has driven two of our staff to transfer and one to retire early, not to mention that poor school psychiatrist," he said solemnly.
"Good Lord, you make him sound like the devil's own son. I've seen him at recess. I know his grandfolks. They're good people, Frank," she said, using her boss' familiar name easily. "He comes from good stock, all right. Just like a good colt who's just a little rough around the edges. I'll bring him out."
"I hope so," Gilchrist said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. "Just let me know at the staff meeting. And be careful."
"Frank," Rose said with some amusement, "if I can handle a quarter horse, I can handle one boy. Just relax, all right?"
As he walked away, she could swear he was muttering "Don't say I didn't warn you…"
Her destination was at the far end of the hall. "214" was stamped on its door. It looked like any other door at Sam Houston Elementary; painted bright red with a metal handle. She peered cautiously into the room, as if expecting to see some kind of exotic zoo exhibit. It appeared to be deserted. So she pushed the door open an inch.
"Hello?" Another inch. "Anyone home?"
Now that she entered the room, it did look deserted. Rose's heart raced. What if he'd escaped, or gotten hurt? She hurried around and began to check for places a young boy might hide: under the teacher's desk, behind the scrolled wall map, the supply cabinet. It was in the last spot that she found him. He peered up at her with guileless brown eyes.
"What the heck are you doing in there?" she asked with a mixture of relief and exasperation.
The boy was tall for his age, and slightly built. He gave a guilty smile. "Testing," he replied in a conspiratorial whisper.
"Testing for what? Cockroaches?" Rose asked, extending her hand to him. "Nothin' in there, tiger. Now come on out."
She saw what he'd meant by "testing" now that the closet was unoccupied. Several women's magazines, probably stored there for future use in arts and crafts classes, had been ripped to shreds, and a heavy floral aroma hung in the air. She sneezed.
"They all smell so pretty. I couldn't choose just one, so," the boy said, "I had to do a blind smell test." He smiled. It was a smile that went from his head to his toes. "Maribel is the best, by the way."
"Maribel, huh?" Rose nodded. It was a perfume that several of her colleagues wore. "You have good taste in perfume. I'm Miss Chatelaine, by the way. I'll be your new teacher."
Either the boy was still enraptured by his olfactory experiment, or he was a little slow. He didn't seem to acknowledge her greeting. "What's that you're wearing?"
"Rosewater." In fact, it was a perfume she usually made herself using an old recipe. "Because my first name is Rose. What about yours?" She used the opportunity to get back on the subject.
Her student, as if appraising an expensive painting, looked her up and down, left and right, sniffing the air. Then he shook his head.
"No, it smells like rotten fruit . I think you should try Isla Tropica. It's kinda more pineapple-y, ya know?"
She didn't know whether to laugh or be embarrassed. One thing was certainly becoming clear to her, though, was that this boy was anything but slow. And he certainly wasn't the holy terror that Frank Gilchrist and all the other staff members had made him out to be. He was just, as her daddy used to say, proof that you shouldn't judge a well by the length of the pump handle.
And now, he was her student. She loved a challenge.
"So, now that we've had a perfume-smelling exercise," she said, a smile pulling at her lips, "maybe you'd like to tell me your name, son?"
"H.M.," he said simply.
"Care to tell me what that stands for, or just H.M.?"
He shook his head firmly. "Nope. It's a secret."
"Okay, H.M. it is. You can call me Rose, or Miss Chatelaine, whichever makes you comfortable."
Rose had brought a lesson plan with her, of course, but she mentally pushed it aside. With a boy like H.M., she'd have to be creative, ingenious, and quick on her feet. She'd have to use methods none of the other teachers had tried, because they, with their educational methods and lesson plans, had obviously failed him. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the torn heaps of magazines, and inspiration struck her.
"So, I suppose you enjoy science?" Seeing him nod eagerly, she continued. "How about we experiment a little this afternoon?"
"Experiment?" H.M. asked curiously. "I like those. What kind?"
The room was smaller than most of the others, but stocked with the usual supply of paper, glue, pencils, and desks. "How about something with smells? You seem to have a good sense of smell."
H.M. grinned. "Yep. I especially like the glue."
"Glue?" Rose was horrified. "What about glue?"
"You know, the way it sticks to your fingers when you're working, and…"
She breathed a sigh of relief.
"…and it smells kinda good, too."
The relief was short-lived. She could tell that working with this boy would be like riding a wooden roller coaster without a lap belt. But riding coasters, along with riding unbroken colts, was one of Rose Chatelaine's favorite things in the world.
"H.M., do you mind if I ask you something?"
"Okay." Those eyes of his, unlike any other student's she'd ever known, looked directly at her, unafraid.
"How…" She didn't want to phrase it the wrong way. "How'd you wind up here with me, anyway? Didn't you get along with Miss Rucker, or Mrs. Whitson?" It was a fair question, she thought, and one that needed to be answered.
H.M. seemed to consider the question. Then he shrugged. "They were nice. But they always kept telling me to 'pay attention, pay attention' when I already was, and they never let me bring Harold in from recess," he explained, a hint of sadness coming over his features.
"Harold?" Rose was confused. Was that his first name?
"Oh yeah. Meant to introduce you. Rose, this is Harold," H.M. said, gesturing to what appeared to be an empty patch of air like a game-show host. "It's all right, he's really friendly."
Rose, after a moment's hesitation, knelt. "How do you do," she said, not wanting to hurt the boy's feelings.
"I think he likes you," H.M. said appraisingly. "He normally hates grown-ups."
"I'm honored," she answered, stroking the air where she guessed Harold's head might be. "But since these are school hours, H.M., do you mind if I ask Harold to lie under the desk while we work?"
"Sure." H.M. shooed Harold off, then faced her again. "Can I do some experiments?"
"You may," she said, holding up a hand suddenly, "as long as we do them together, with my supervision. It's for your own safety. Understood?"
"Good. Now, where do we begin…?"
Mark had listened all this time without interrupting. That was a problem with most children nowadays, thought Rose. A basic lack of manners. But only now did he speak.
"He sounds like a weird kid," Mark said, although he'd laughed a few times as she'd told the story. "Was he retarded or something?"
Rose flinched at the word. "No, he certainly wasn't. He was actually extremely bright. I taught him for two years, and we both grew to like each other very much."
"If he was so smart, how come he needed a special ed teacher?"
Again, there was that uncensored honesty of a young boy. H.M. had been like that once, too.
"Sometimes, it takes a special touch to bring out a special talent," Rose said, amazed at her own insight. "I know I'm probably boring you, sonny, and you'd rather be playing your Hatari…"
"Atari," Mark corrected her.
"…sorry…but what you have to realize is that that's what teachers do. We try and bring out the best of each and every student. Maybe you'll find a teacher like that someday."
It was Mark's turn to look embarrassed. "I didn't say all teachers were boring," he mumbled.
"I'm sure you didn't mean it." Rose glanced up at the clock. She'd been so absorbed in her story, she'd missed lunch. It could wait. This was much more of a treat than soggy sandwiches and runny mashed potatoes.
"What happened to him? H.M.?" Mark finally asked.
She had kept in touch with him, off and on, until finally the correspondence dried up. But she had done her homework, as any good teacher would. "Last I heard, he'd become a pilot," Rose said with a note of pride in her voice. "That always did fascinate him."
"What kind of pilot?"
"That," Rose said, wagging one finger, "can wait until another day. I think it's time for you to head on back."
She knew she had him by the way his eyes widened. "Wow, a pilot? Really?"
"Really." A minute later, the blonde nurse arrived to pick up Mark.
"Did the two of you get to know one another?"
Rose smiled at her. "Oh, yes. I got to reminisce. You know how we old folks love to do that," she said with a raise of one eyebrow.
"I'm so glad to hear that…"
The door closed behind her. Rose was, again, alone.
She hadn't been telling the complete truth. From her bureau drawer, the old lady pulled out a leather scrapbook, stuffed full of yellowing clippings from newspapers and magazines. She frowned, shuffling the pages until her trembling fingers came to rest on one particular page.
"Beaumont Pilot Receives Silver Star, Returns Home Saturday"
Next to the article was a thumbnail photo of a handsome Army pilot, smiling from ear to ear. She hadn't seen him for twenty-five years, but she remembered that smile.
Wherever you are, H.M., she thought, I hope you're being a good boy and you remember all the things I taught you. Never let what others say discourage you, listen to what your gut's telling you, hold your head up and be proud.
And never, never use that glue for anything other than sticking things together. You hear me?
A moment later, Rose had drifted off, the scrapbook still open in her lap.
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