Symphony 25

“On a day like this,” Neil went on, “it would be easy to think that anything is better than heat . . .”

“Right,” Jason Parmalee chimed in.

“. . . but in fact people who live where it is cold dream about heat just like you are dreaming about cold now.”

“Impossible!” was Lee Boyd’s opinion.

“True, though. Take the miners in the Klondike gold rush, for instance. Do you know what that was?” They didn’t, of course, so he told them a bit of that tale, then said, “One of the men who went to the gold rush was a poet named Robert Service, and he wrote about a man who couldn’t stand the cold. This man wanted so much to get warm that when he died he wouldn’t let his partner bury him. His name was Sam McGee.” And Neil began to read:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
     By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
     That would make you blood run cold . . .

He had them for a solid eleven minutes, and the discussion that followed lasted until the final bell rang.

# # #

Neil gathered up the student’s papers and stuffed them into his briefcase. As he locked the door and headed for his car, he ran into Glen Ulrich. Glen was looking pale and ill, but he was polite enough to say, “How was your first day?”

“Hot! How do you stand these classrooms?”

Glen looked sour. “Well, we don’t have much choice, do we? Not everyone can get an air conditioned room. It all depends on who you are.”

Neil was taken aback. He made a conventional reply and broke off the conversation. In the parking lot he saw Carmen but she paid no attention to him. Pearl Richardson was getting into her station wagon. She waved, smiled, and said, “How was it?”

“Okay.”

“How did it feel, having little hooligans instead of big hooligans?”

Neil was in no mood for banter, but he managed to say, “A hooligan is a hooligan, I guess.” Then he waved and got into his car.

He was low. Rock bottom depressed, and it had sneaked up on him. When he had been reading to the children he had felt some of the old excitement of teaching for the first time since Alice Hamilton had made her false accusation. When the children left for the evening, two of them had said good-bye and at least a half dozen had looked friendly. It was all any strange teacher could hope for on the first day. He had done very well, really.

So why did he feel like dog droppings?

He drove east on Kiernan, but he couldn’t face his apartment, so he turned right on McHenry and drove down between the filling stations, the department stores, and the tire stores. It was like prodding a wound. He hated the tabletop flatness, the heat, the traffic, and the enervating blandness of Modesto. To Neil, it was a town without character. He drove downtown, past the modern ugliness of the new civic center and headed aimlessly southwestward. Down Crows Landing Road he found Modesto’s equivalent of a slum, rolled past the boiled meat stench of the rendering plant, and southward past a tractor dealer with a showroom so big and grand that it was like a temple of agriculture. Still further south he went, out of the city and across the flat valley. The heat wrapped itself around him, carried in by a wind that did not cool. Off to his right, the coast range stretched north and south, burned to pale gold by the pitiless sun. He passed palm trees and farm houses, drove through the butter thick smell of feed lots. He no longer knew where he was, and he did not care. As long as he could just drive, he did not have to think. more tomorrow

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