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Blue & Gold

What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you think your life will turn out the way you hoped? And what if it doesn't? How will you deal with that? Have you kept your options open, or have you blown off things that didn't seem important in reaching your dreams? Some people learn too late that life doesn't always turn out like you want. And some people, missing out on that dream, still can't let go.

It was a cool day in late November but Jim Mason was sweating. Crunchy leaves of brown and red swirled around his blue Chevy in the autumn breeze as his truck door swung shut with a thud, a golden script logo revealing itself as he moved away:

James G. Mason, Plumber

Jim looked up as he walked. The old school, a blocky one-story structure of pitted red bricks, looked much smaller than the last time Jim had entered eighteen years ago – smaller, but still just as oppressive. The building mocked him. He hadn’t wanted this job and at any other time would have refused the work, but business was slow and he couldn’t afford to say no. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, his shoulders slumping forward slightly in the process, and resigned himself to his duty as he headed toward the glass-faced double-doors at the center of the building.

Things hadn't changed much in eighteen years as far as Jim could see. The old aluminum casings of the doors creaked in the same ominous way he remembered, and the main hallway, upon stepping inside, still exhibited the same faded yellow walls, dull gray lockers, and obnoxious lime green tiling as when he had attended classes. The door slammed and rattled behind him as he moved ahead, the illumination from the long overhead fluorescent lights seeming dull compared to the sunlight outside.

Jim walked tentatively, as if expecting a hall monitor from his past to leap out and ask for his pass. He came upon the antique trophy case, layers of dust laying thick upon its contents and the inscriptions unreadable to Jim as he scanned the case for his photos from the state championships. The yellowed newspaper clippings and old photos were still there. He turned away from the neglected case and continued onward down the silent hallway.

Jim passed a number of doorways, the large windows of each door exposing classrooms full of teenagers, chalkboards filled with notes, and open books at every desk. The muffled request of a teacher asking a student to read from a story unlocked a passage in Jim's mind and brought forth one particular memory he had tried for years to repress.

He had been sitting in class daydreaming about the upcoming football game, a vision of the rickety bleachers in the small town stadium packed to capacity with enthusiastic fans cheering for his winning touchdown. A substitute teacher, unaware that the faculty always allowed Jim to pass even though he should have failed, had pulled him from his daydream and requested that he read from the next chapter of the textbook. Jim had tried to refuse the substitute unsuccessfully, and then had struggled hopelessly to read the start of the chapter, unable to utter more than a few words before giving up and announcing in defeat that he couldn't read.

The old memory disturbed Jim as he continued to stare into the classroom, the blackboard defying him to write a proper sentence, desks threatening to capture him and hold him prisoner. Jim was sure that the teachers were all looking at him, looking down upon him for his inability to read, considering him lowly, beneath them. He tried to tell himself that he earned two to four times as much per year as any of these teachers, but the argument was one that had always failed to make him feel better.

Jim shook himself out of his trance and moved quickly down the hall. The bathroom he was to repair was right around the corner, and he was now determined to finish this job as quickly as possible and go somewhere else – anywhere else.

The bathroom was small and ugly, a foul odor of mildew hung in the air, and the orange and green tiles struggled against each other for repulsiveness, the long mirror on the wall amplifying the garish colors. The third sink, its porcelain worn away in patches all across its surface, was full of brackish water and the drainpipe below sent forth a steady weeping drip into a muddy puddle on the floor.

Jim took a wrench from his utility belt and lay down on the floor to work with the elbow joint beneath the sink. The job would be easy – good old solid pipes, not the newer, cheaper plastic pipes he despised. Jim could fix the leak and clear the drain in a flash. The satisfaction Jim usually felt from performing his work was missing today, though, stopped up somewhere inside him like the clot of hairs that blocked the sink above his head.

Jim worked quickly with the cold pipes, a feverish sweat continuing to bead on his brow. The solitude of the bathroom was broken by the irritating, ringing of a bell that Jim recognized as the signal for classes to change. The echo reverberated across the dull tiles as Jim rushed to finish, and the cessation of the bell left the bathroom still and quiet.

Moments later the bathroom door slammed open and four young men in blue and gold letter jackets entered, laughing and mock-wrestling with each other on their way to the foul-smelling urinals. Their laughter stopped when they noticed Jim on his back beneath the sinks, making one final, grunting twist with his wrench. Without hesitation their raucous laughter renewed, bouncing around the empty room and surrounding Jim from all sides.

Jim stood quickly and gathered his soiled tools. He glanced fleetingly at the stocky lettermen, wondering as he quickly retreated if any of them would unknowingly follow in his footsteps. The dingy, ugly walls and ceiling of the hall seemed to press in upon him as he made his escape, the classrooms calling out for him to return. His pace quickened as he neared the parking lot, his truck and freedom visible through the dirty glass panes of the aluminum-framed doors. With a weary creak from the doors Jim was free, the outside air crisp and calming to his ragged breaths, the swirling breeze chilling the sweat on his brow.


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Blue & Gold, by Paul Cales, © October 2001