The Centenarian (Part One)

Reads: 290  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An aged retiring math teacher lives life to the fullest, and in his adventures, finds more life than he bargained for.

Submitted: May 04, 2011

A A A | A A A

Submitted: May 04, 2011

A A A

A A A


One never really knows one’s last time at anything, for sure; even on the worst of days, one figures there’s always tomorrow. That’s what schoolteacher Gaither Tuttle figured, anyway, and he ambled into the halls of Saint Louis High no differently from the way he had for the past seventy, that’s right, seventy years. Battered leather briefcase in hand, the distinctive smell of passing period marijuana somewhere down the hall, it could just as well have been any old day. And truth be told, that really was the operative word, wasn’t it? Old. It was all getting old. The job. The place. The man. He thought about his recent recognition. Thought about it with mixed, if bittersweet feelings. Here he was, after all, the oldest educator in the nation. What a tribute! What an honor! What a sad refrain! Yet here he was, the last teaching day of the year, the end of a reign in the school’s math department, here he was, making one final curtain call. It would certainly be the end of an established way of life. The end of math teaching. The end of….it all?  Today really would mark a last time. He spied the gold plaque above his room door that read “King Tut.” He had used the playful nickname in school for years, but now, this old pharaoh’s casket was just about closed.

He thought about it as he unlocked room 116. Thought about it in mathematical terms. In all, the equation of his career balanced out. What he’d done on one side of the equal sign, he’d done on the other. Still, it was hard. How in the world does one….

A crinkling paper broke his consternation. “Hey, King Tut, King Tut, I got the extra credit problem.”  She was a student just this side of a passing grade.

He looked over the paper and returned it to the girl. “Looks like a home run to me.” Baseball was his passion––namely, St. Louis Cardinals Baseball––and if he wasn’t the oldest Cardinals fan, he was definitely in the running. Further, if Tuttle was a baseball nut, one could say his classroom was a baseball nuthouse. He opened the door to once again greet the extravagant array of Cardinals memorabilia hung everywhere. Players, pennants, jerseys, even an autographed glove from Red Schoendienst adorned the place.

Today, the final examinations would be discussed. Much of it the usual fare, still, a sizable portion included story problems and questions related to baseball––the field, dimensions, situations, etc.

Gaither Tuttle, in this few moments of peace before the daily invasion of his ninth graders, hung his cap upon the hall tree in the corner of his room, and studied himself in the small mirror behind it. “You made it, you old fart.” His complexion was still good, even at this advanced age, and if one just overlooked a few of the inevitable liver warts, one saw a healthy, unconquerable face. Patting down his silver, brushed back hair, he stared into his own steely blue eyes. “I guess you can retire now.” His large, beaklike nose seemed somehow un-proportionate to his small, slightly stooped thin frame, yet his chiseled features still retained an air of handsomeness. He walked away from the mirror. He had just a few papers yet to grade.

At 8:00 sharp they came rustling in like any other day, but there were no problems, really, there rarely were in Mr. Tuttle’s class. He always said it was about respect. ‘You give it you get it’. Of course, he also admitted the other aspect. “I think they also feel sorry for me, but I use it to my advantage. No one wants their actions to be responsible for killing the poor, frail old math guy.

“I tell them, I don’t mess with the school office. Anyone who gives me a heart attack will be sent to the big house. That seems to get their attention.”

He pointed his cane, elaborate and red, with a St. Louis Cardinal on the holding end, to the blackboard. This problem, he was saying, is easy, and most of you got it right, but I can’t tell you how many of you forgot to add the abbreviation of square foot. “I mark it wrong if you forget the square foot.” The question had asked for the area of the infield of a baseball diamond. “And how do we get that?” He drew upon a raised hand, and the reply was the correct one.

“Yes, 8,100 square feet.” Now, he was pointing to each base of the baseball diamond pictogram upon the chalkboard. “The diamond, of course, is just an rotated square, and each base is…how many? Yes, 90 feet apart. 90 times 90 is 8,100 square feet. He then reviewed a series of questions involving baseball statistics that included the calculation of average and games behind.

“And question 26…” but misbehavior in the back row had caught his eye, and it had apparently triggered another twitch. This time his arm, and it jolted up involuntarily like a spring, only to return to normality moments later. These had been happening lately, these muscular tics, now his head, then his arm; different parts of his body seemed to speak out with random annoyance.  Some of the children laughed. He would have to look into it. It was no way to start retirement. But before he ended his career, as he had done for so long, he reminded his students of his oft-spoken truism: “Remember, math, like life, is no more than learning a set of rules and applying them. Easy.”

“But Mr. Tuttle, it’s too hard.”

“It’s not hard if you know how to do it.”

Enter retirement…there was a subject he didn’t know much about. Would it be hard? He decided to pose the question. “So, guys. For seventy years kids have asked me ‘how do I do this? How do I do that? And I’ve told them. Now though, I feel it’s my turn to ask: How do I retire? I mean, how do you suppose one retires successfully?”

The kids chuckled, but finally some hands flew up.

“Just don’t retire, Mr. Tuttle. Stay here. You don’t have to.”

He laughed out loud. “Well that’s…that’s very flattering of you, but it’s…it’s definitely time. Can’t even walk from one side of the room to the other without doin’ the jitterbug,” he laughed again.

“I know, Mr. Tuttle,” declared a young girl. “I know how you should retire. Just keep busy with stuff you like. And spend time with your family and friends.”

He nodded, tightly setting his lips. “I like that. I like that very much.” He only had his daughter left, but friends were in no short supply. He left the day feeling good. The year. The career. Next week, his student teacher, Mr. Gray, promised to help clear his desk and straighten up the room. In the meantime…at the end of the day, “Ouch, sum bitch!” his arm once again rocketed out from his side, causing his hand to slam into the side of the desk. Caressing it, the self-proclaimed “jitterbug” exited the room.

 

“Chorea,” concluded the doc. “Nervous muscle twitches. Tests indicate a calcium deficiency, but it’s nothing to be alarmed about.” He gave him some brochures to look over and made out a prescription. “I hope you don’t mind my asking,” continued the doc, “but do you still have a helping hand around the house?”

He did. His daughter Darlene didn’t live in the same house; only a block away, but helped him regularly with groceries, laundry, etcetera. “She’s a remarkable kid.” Remarkable, even if that ‘kid’ was 75 years old.

 “Good. Take these as prescribed and get plenty of rest during the day.” The doc’s eyes met those of the elderly man before him. “You know,” he said, after a pause,  “a man your age, in your health is…miraculous. I should be coming to you! If you don’t mind my asking, how do you do it? What’s your secret?”

Tuttle patted his own pant leg. “Good jeans. I bought these in 1957 and they still fit!”

And at that, he was sent on his merry way, a retiree on the loose. A retiree ready to tackle this brand new problem called retirement. He started by paying a visit to the graves of his parents. It was an almost ritualistic thing he did­­––indeed he owed a debt of gratitude to them both––for his pure Christian upbringing, for his guidance in youth, for his principles of right living, for, quite possibly his very longevity. In keeping with the ritual, he bowed and prayed. Upon opening his aged eyes, he smiled at the Cardinal that had landed upon the granite monument. “I’ll see you guys soon,” he whispered watching the bird flitter away,  “but not too soon.” He looked at his watch, adjusted his red sports coat, turned, and followed that cardinal to a stadium called Busch.

The home game against Cincinnati was about to be underway as he ambled up the switchbacks with cardinal cane in hand to his air-conditioned box seat in the Lou Brock suite. Someone asked him today just how many games he thought he’d seen, and of course he had to reply that he wasn’t exactly sure, but it was certainly more than one could shake a bat at. He had been a Cardinals fan for 87 years, since his father introduced him to it in 1919, and that was why, “We need to get you on Mike Shannon’s show,” the same man said. “You’d be a heck of an interview.”

That happened about a month or so later. It was during the fifth inning and Mike Shannon was calling the play-by-play in a tie game against the Cubs when his guest was ushered into the booth.

“Got a nice view, young man,” Tuttle said, and between the guffaws the interview was underway. In response to the questions, he told the broadcaster what he’d told the fan––that he’d been following the Cardinals for 87 years, that he was now 99 years old, and that he now planned to follow the team from town to town.

“You plan to catch every game?” Shannon asked.

Tuttle, rubbing the head of his Cardinal cane, simply replied: “No. I’ll let Molina catch a few.” There was laughter in the back of the booth. “The Cardinal Catcher,” Shannon clarified with a chuckle.  After the commercial, the question was asked if he remembered anything about the 1919 team and watching Rogers Hornsby play.

“Ahh, Hornsby, yes. My first autograph. This would have been in old Robison Field. I was something like 12 years old, and I got him to sign my hat. I wish to heck I still had that thing…” An abrupt cough and twitch of the arm caught Shannon in the midsection.  “Oh, sorry. Nerves. But,” he glossed over it, “there were others I remember as well. You had pitchers like Jakie May, and Ferdie Schupp. But as a kid, I’ll always remember the catcher. Pickles Dillhoefer.”

The two shared a laugh, and by the time the interview was concluded, the old man felt sure he’d taught even the veteran Shannon a thing or two. During the ensuing season, Gaither Tuttle was at one stadium or another for 150 of the games, anyway.

 

Afterward, during October, the old man was rocked by a moment of truth. Stemming from a visit to the confessional, he was implored by the priest to make amends with anyone he may have wronged through the years. “I’d do it while you’re still healthy, my son.”

A glaring recollection illuminated his thoughts, popping immediately to mind. He cringed. The thought, he knew, would not be an easy thing to rectify.

To the priest:

it was Pearl Harbor. The bombing was just underway. Petty officer Alex Fringe and I had just tied on a few the night before at a local bar…we had become friends, talked about all the usual stuff, you know, women and beer and Navy life. Anyway, it was the next day, December 7, I was by myself walking around near the barracks when the barrage came. Shortly after, I heard the cry, and it didn’t take long to know who it was. He had seen me walking above on the plank, looking up from his perspective on one of our carriers in the harbor. I could see him now, wedged underneath an iron shaft blown apart from the hull. I…I started to make my way down there, but…another Jap bomb hit probably thirty feet from me in the direction I was moving. In the confusion, I…

The priest said nothing, though he sure wished he would bale him out here.

In the confusion, I turned and ran the other way. Having realized the selfishness of my decision, I shortly thereafter, amidst the bombs everywhere, turned back around, but it was too late. Fringe was not dead, but the medics beat me to him. He glared at me from that gurney. The way he looked up at me from that stretcher…he didn’t need a gun. It was a look to kill. And I wish I had died…but as it was, Petty officer Fringe lost his leg…all so I could save myself.

“Is this soldier still living today?”

“That I don’t know.”

“I think you need to find out. God will forgive you for this act of selfishness. But for true penance, I think you need to seek your friend’s pardon. And also forgive yourself this old pain. See what you can find out, my son.”

What he found out surprised him. Indeed, Alex Fringe was still living. He had evidently never moved from Hawaii. The 89 year-old Navy vet had a home in Honolulu.

Tuttle arranged the flight. He had to pay a penance.

Darlene was doing laundry in his basement when he broke the news to her. “It’s just something I’ve got to do, kid. I’ll be fine, I promise. This old body’s got a few more good miles in it.”

As she had always done, Darlene sincerely accepted. “Oh, Daddy,” she said, her slight frame embracing her father, “you’re a good man. Just be careful, okay?” He would, of course, but sure wished that kind of warmth and acceptance could have carried over to Honolulu.

In many ways, when the plane touched down into the fiftieth state five days later, it was just as he remembered it. The ocean and swaying palms brought back deeply buried memories, the residue of both war and roses. For today, though, he would mix pleasure with business only to the extent of purchasing a flowery, flamboyant pink and red shirt. The rest was pure business. Through his research and the local phone book, he had tracked down the apparent home of his old friend in the outskirts of Honolulu, rented a car and drove to the place. Two palm trees on either side of the short driveway swayed in the breeze in front of the pink, stucco house. After ringing the bell, he waited not less than 10 minutes, before a chubby, elderly woman opened the door. After asking for his friend, she responded feebly that he had been admitted to Free Palm Nursing Home only a few weeks prior due to health needs. “Are you a friend of his?”

Tuttle said that he was, but didn’t elaborate, except to say that he wished to catch up on old times.

“Oh. Well that’s where he is. Room 212, extended care,” the woman said sweetly. “He’ll enjoy the company. You know where it is, right?”

Tuttle nodded, smiling. “Thank you, ma’am.”

The drive to Free Palm Nursing Home was a splendid one, and Tuttle let the warm air soothe both body and soul through two open windows and an open roof hatch along the way. Business, my friend. Don’t forget, now. Business.

Fringe didn’t recognize Tuttle at first––the crimped up old man lying up in his bed––but his presence must have come as a revelation just before:

“Oh, dear God.”

Tuttle had crept in, placed his hand on the old man’s. “That’s right, it’s me. Gaither Tuttle. I’ve come a long way…I mean, I’m here to…” he stumbled on the words. “What I want to say is it’s important to me that you might somehow forgive me in my bad judgment those many years ago.”

The old man had the same swarthy features and rounded face, only now there was no mustache and no hair. “Why now?” he finally managed. “After leaving me to a lifetime of hobbling around?”

“I…”

“You had time. Had you pulled me free and not run the other way…it was the difference between what could have been saved and what was lost.”

Tuttle bowed sorrowfully at the bed.

“It seems to me you made the cowardly decision…for your own hide.”

Tuttle mournfully looked up to meet the eyes of the aged soldier. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. And that’s why I’m here. I was young and foolish.” Finally, “I’m sorry.” And He turned for the door. “I’m sorry for both of us.”

“Wait!”

Tuttle turned at the door.

Fringe coughed. “Tuttle. We’re both very old men. No use in playing childish games. When it comes down to it, I don’t think either one of us want to go to our graves with this on our conscience. What’s done is done.”

Tuttle, interested now, inched his way closer.

“I do forgive you Gaither Tuttle. Even you couldn’t bring a good man down. Mine was a good life. And in some ways… ways that would be difficult to explain to you, perhaps you even helped to bring that about.”

“Maybe we can catch up with…”

“Or not. No, just accept my forgiveness, Tuttle, and leave it at that.”

And so, at that, the older man slinked out of the nursing home, satisfied but with a sinking feeling. He’d done all he could do.

That night, before the following day’s flight back to the mainland, he decided to attend a luau in the hopes of freeing his mind from the dark cloud of his past. If those exotic Hula dancers amidst the festive tiki torches, along with the carefree children at play in the soft, salty air couldn’t help him do that, by God, nothing could.

Halloween in Hawaii. The following evening brought about those festivities. He had a day to kill before his flight back so, in returning to his hotel around dusk, he spied a group of slightly over-aged trick-or-treaters approaching down the sidewalk. Naturally, he hid behind a bush and calculated his move. When he jumped out just as they passed and grumbled “arrrgh!”, the kids dropped their bags with a start.

“What are you s’posed to be?” one of them snickered.

Tuttle shrugged. “The old man of the bushes. But I got you didn’t I?”

 

It was November 2 when his plane landed back in St. Louis. It was cold, it was rainy and…he remembered. It was officially one week before his one-hundredth birthday. In his small office, his answering machine light was flashing.

“Aloha, Dad. I hope everything went well in Hawaii,” it was Darlene. “I’ll be over tomorrow to give you a hand. And…by the way…I have some exciting news…”

Darlene, it seemed, had made special arrangements for a hundredth birthday bash at Mike Shannon’s Restaurant downtown. “A few old friends might show up and everything will be on the house,” she explained.

Although off-season, Mike Shannon himself was present for the November 9 date– along with several of Tuttle’s previous work associates. It was a party with all the ‘fixins.

“I’m truly speechless,” the centenarian said to the famous radio host.

“Don’t be,” Shannon said. “And thanks for your years of support. You’re an asset to the Cardinal Nation, sir.”

Tuttle raised his cane. “At least I have cause to celebrate. I know a few fellas my age in Chicago that…” but he was nudged by his daughter.

“Dad!”

Shannon laughed. “Right on, big boy. Right on! Hey, gotta get another barrel of cold frosty ones. Your pals are starting to settle in.”

As the host replenished the beer, Tuttle and Darlene mingled. “Where’s Gray? Is he here?” the question was directed toward his replacement at St. Louis High. “Yeah, there he is.”

Mr. Gray was alone at the bar, and had turned his stool to face the approaching ex-teacher and daughter.

“Ahh, Mr. Tuttle. Good to see you, sir. Congratulations.” He continued by saying that he was missed at the school and especially in the Math Department. He looked dejected. “You know you, ole boy, you left me some mighty big shoes to fill. The way you taught it, math was a game. All the kids still want that seventh hour stretch!”

Tuttle laughed. Seventh hour, the last hour of the day, he had taken the kids outside each nice day, and taught his lesson there.

Tuttle put his hand on his associates shoulder. “By all means, continue the tradition, kid. I’m sure you’re doing a fine job. Just remember my slogan…”

“I know, I know. ‘No errors if you don’t drop the ball.’”

“Keep up the good work.”

Dinner was served. Succulent steaks, potatoes, and wines were enjoyed by all. The party blasted on beyond midnight, culminating in nothing short of Tuttle and daughter dancing vitally to Rafferty’s Centerfield.


© Copyright 2020 CP Dawson. All rights reserved.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments:

More Literary Fiction Short Stories