A few summers ago my mother and I drove to Brimfield, Massachusetts for the antiques fair and on the way back to New York we left the highway for a mosey along Memory Lane, ending at Three Rivers Grammar School where I had been enrolled during the very brief time my dad’s job transferred us to New England. It was easy enough to find Three Rivers, but what we saw as we stopped at red lights depressed me; the entire town was shabby. Reaching the large, redbrick, Victorian structure where I had attended fourth grade drove a sharpened Eberhard Faber Blackwing through my heart. The school was surrounded by chain link fence with looping barbed wire curling through the top. To say that it had fallen into disrepair didn’t come close. The playground tarmac, formerly painted with hopscotch and foursquare diagrams, was cracked into chasms from weeds the size of small trees bursting through. Oddly shaped islands of grey asphalt were scattered about in the shade created by them. No paint remained on the wooden sashes and frames of the enormous windows. Pigeons and their remains covered the sagging roof.
I pulled close to a curb. “Aw, man,” I exclaimed. “That makes me sad.”
My mother nodded. “I figured that there would be a big, regional school now, but I am surprised that no one kept up this gorgeous old building.”
I pointed at the dirt-streaked, second-floor window. “That was Miss Kolbusz’s office” I reminded my mother. My fourth grade teacher was also the principal and every week in those pre-answering machine days a different student was chosen to trot into her office and answer the phone when it rang during the school day. We transferred calls or wrote messages for distribution at a later time. I was often chosen because I spoke loudly and clearly.
A lump swelled in my throat for my lost childhood and I opened the car door. “I want to look in there,” I called to my mom over my shoulder. “Wait here so you can bail me out of jail if the cops come.” I didn’t expect them to; despite forty years having passed, Three Rivers still appeared to be a one-sheriff town.
I ran across the street and was pushing myself through the narrow opening in the fence when I felt someone brush against me. Jumping, I realized that it was my mother. From the far side of the fence I faced her.
“What are you doing?” I exclaimed as I saw her begin to compress herself and wedge through after me.
She exhaled. “I am not going to let you go to jail alone,” she answered.
“Then who is going to call Daddy and Jamie?” I asked, only half kidding.
“We will each get one phone call,” she replied knowingly in the voice of one who had watched Hill Street Blues religiously.
We crossed the broken tarmac and climbed the cracked and chipped steps until we were even with the large window of the office I remembered so fondly. Even leaning over the rickety banister, I was too short to see in. Frustrated, I chewed on my left thumb nail until a plan formulated.
“I know,” I said. “I will balance on the banister and climb to the window ledge. I should be able to see in that way.”
My mother raised one eyebrow. “I don’t think that is a good idea,” she said.
“No, I will be okay. Here give me a boost and then hold my leg until I have my other leg on the ledge. It’s marble, see? It isn’t broken.”
“Laura, be careful,” my mother clutched my thighs. “I don’t think it’s sturdy enough. I don’t want you to end up in the hospital.
“No, Mom, I am fine.” And I was. This was back in the days of my attending aerobics and weight training classes three times per week and I boosted myself easily to the ledge.
“Laura, listen to your mother,” came a deep voice. Startled, I nearly fell off the ledge. Digging my nails into the rotting wood sills I snapped my head around like an owl. Yes, it was a police office. Actually, there were two, one standing about ten feet away, and one about ten feet beyond him; they were both watching quietly. Their shiny blue and white car with flashing red lights blocked the old schoolyard gate.
“What are you doing?” the closer one asked.
I sighed. “I went to fourth grade here then we moved away. I wanted to see what my old classroom looked like.”
“Didn’t you see the No Trespassing signs?”
“Could you read them?”
I frowned. “Well, sure. I just said I went to fourth grade here.”
He pursed his lips and pushed his hat back on his head. “Did you just think they don’t pertain to you?”
I said nothing for a minute. “Do you want the truth?” I asked sheepishly.
His eyes widened. “I’d love the truth,” he agreed glancing over his shoulder at his partner.
“I didn’t care. I loved my teacher. I loved this school. I loved answering the phone in that office. I miss it all. I felt horrible when I saw the shambles the building has become and I just wanted to remember my childhood.”
The older officer hadn’t said anything until this point, apparently content to allow his younger partner take the collar. Now he called, “You say you answered the phone in that office?”
I looked over the closer officer’s head toward the farther one and raised my voice slightly. “Yes, my teacher was also the principal so everyone in her class took turns answering the phone when it rang.”
“I know,” he agreed. “’Three Rivers Grammar School. How may I help you?’”
I was startled; that was what we had been trained to say when we answered. “No, wait,” I recalled. “You are supposed to say your name in between the school name and the how may I help you part.”
The older officer chucked. “You’re right. I forgot. What did you used to say?”
“I used to say ‘Laura speaking’.” I cocked my head. “What did you used to say?”
He grinned. “I used to say ‘Duane speaking.’”
“Duane Corbett?” I nearly fell off the ledge.
He started. “Yes. How did you know?”
“You were in my class. We were the last fourth grade before Miss Kolbusz retired. I had a crush on you. Actually you and Michael Smith.”
He stared. “Laura Basquette?”
I shook my head. “No! Laura Basquette had dark hair!”
He peered from under his visor. “I don’t remember you.”
“Yes, you do! I am the other Laura. We moved here from New York at the beginning of the school year? Remember Mr. Ricci the math teacher who used to point at the board with his really big nose? Remember we read Rudyard Kipling’s “I Keep Six Honest Serving Men”? Remember we had to memorize our multiplication tables? How could I know all this stuff if I hadn’t actually been here?” I tried one last memory jog. “I won the fourth grade spelling bee, for God’s sake! The word was tomato and some girl named Tammy spelled it with an e at the end!”
The officer stared at me for a long while. “I know who you are. You were only here for one year then you moved away.”
Finally! “Yup, that was me.”
“So where do you live now?”
“New Jersey. My husband and I bought an old farm house with the last couple of acres.”
“So what are you doing here?”
Well, for one thing I was getting ready to fall as my fingers grew stiff and sweaty in the hot July sun. “My mom and I went to Brimfield then drove here to see what’s changed.”
Duane grinned. “Not much, but we do have a new air-conditioned police station with new cells.”
I gasped. “You aren’t going to arrest me, are you?” I nearly tumbled from the ledge at that.
He cocked his head. “I haven’t decided yet but even if I were we’d have to get you down first.” He turned to his partner. “Come on, Randy. Help the lady down before she falls.”
When I was back on the tarmac and it was obvious that my old schoolmate did not intend to haul me off to the hoosegow, I asked, “Say, Duane, you don’t have the keys so we could see inside, do you?”
He shook his head. “No, the town doesn’t own the old girl, anymore. Someone just bought her to turn her into condos.”
I sighed. “Isn’t that always the way?”
Duane did have a key to the padlock, however; he and his partner hadn’t attempted to squeezle through the narrow opening. He ushered us out then closed the gates and snapped the lock shut and walked me to my car. His partner opened the passenger door for my mom. After I was seated behind the wheel with the key in the ignition, he leaned in and kissed me on my left cheek. “Goodbye, Other Laura,” he said. “In the future, after the Brimfield Fair, go to the County Historical Records Office if you want to see old buildings. I will have to arrest you if you become a repeat offender.”
And with that, he turned, walked to his car, and drove away. I haven’t returned to Massachusetts since. No point in pushing my luck.