Friday, October 26, 2007

Mr. Mayfield's Closet

Seventh grade 1965, Fulton Junior High, Cleburne, Texas. First class of the morning was Mr. Mayfield’s remedial math class …

Mr. Mayfield’s eyeballs were sunk deep inside his gaunt, pale-yellowish, cadaverous, gray-stubbled face, and no matter which angle you looked at him from, the eyeballs never met you straight on but always seemed to look back inside his own head, a bald head topped with a comb-over of straggly hairs as crooked as the old, soup-spotted gray suit he always wore with the coat-button hooked through the wrong hole. He also stank of sweat and stale beer.

He would shuffle around the classroom, averting his eyes to the sunlight and slurring and grumbling deep down in his throat something or other about denominators and variables and irrational numbers (he talked about those a lot), and once in a while pausing by the blackboard to pull a piece of chalk out of his pocket and after dropping it on the floor a few times get a firm grip on it and chicken-scratch some hieroglyphics on the board and wander away talking some more about irrational numbers.

But, once in a while, he would get a gleam in his eye and drop all talk of irrational numbers. At such times, he would wander over to his closet, standing up straight and tall and sober as any man, and with great ceremony, grinning and winking at us, unlock the closet and pull out the heavy paper sacks.

Setting the sacks on his desk, he would tell us about the night, years ago, when he was driving down the highway and came upon the most god-awful thing anyone ever saw: a head-on crash between two Greyhound buses.

The buses exploded on impact, killing dozens of people. It was a historical event, he told us, the aftermath of which he was privileged to have seen with his own eyes, that he might describe it to us to the last detail—the screams, the mangled bodies, smell of burning flesh. Even better, he had the opportunity to dig through the flaming wreckage and rescue some artifacts for our edification.

Then he would open the sacks, and one by one pull out the artifacts. They were gray, molten, hard things that weren’t recognizable as anything in particular until he described them. This was a shoe, he would say, or that was a hand (“from a real human bean”), this was a watch (all bent and drippy like a Dali watch, I kid you not), that was a pair of eyeglasses, this was a femur bone, and so on.

But, once in a while, he would pull out something and stare at it, then admit he was stumped. “I ain’t too sure if this here is part of a human bean or not,” he would say, “but it’s a interestin’ shape whatever the hell it is.”

Then he would put the artifacts back in the sack, carry it to the closet, lock it, sit down at his desk, close his eyes, nod off, and snore.

And the bell would ring for second period.