by Jay O'Toole
This is chapter #15 of The Quest for Home, my NaNoWriMo novel for November 2017.
Longing hearts can hope, again.
Teacher is alone.
"Help my Dad her heart to win.
Make this Mom,...my own."
"Mud. Mud. Mud. I don't much like the mud, Dad, but I like the mud a whole lot more than I enjoyed being that close to alligators."
"We are agreed, My Boy."
"Do you think we could avoid Miss Slippy's Land, if we have to go that far west, again?"
"It would be my pleasure, Son."
"Well, then, what's an Alabama, Dad? Or maybe I should ask, what's in Alabama?"
"Hmmm, I don't rightfully know, but so far there looks to be a great deal of farmland and some trees. The people seem a bit scarce around here. Maybe we'll be safe enough to just walk across this state."
Overall, the five days they spent walking across Alabama seemed rather uneventful, given that they were able to remain hidden most of the time among the trees. They tracked through the southern part of the state, seeing a couple points of interest along the way.
They found themselves in downtown Enterprise, Alabama in the middle of their last night in the state. It was so late the town had "rolled up the sidewalks," and even the patrol cars seemed to be somewhere else in a conference because nobody was around when they read the inscription on the Boll Weevil Monument.
"Why would anybody erect a monument to such a horrid creature, Dad?"
"Son, from the writing on the bottom of the monument, apparently it was not created for love of the insect at all, but for the change, it made in the economy of south Alabama. For many years this part of Alabama was well known for growing cotton, a textile by which humans can make many different types of clothing. However, when the boll weevil came through the area, totally destroying the cotton crops, the farmers had to think of how they might be able to fix the problem. They needed to find a new crop to grow in order to save their way of life. Do you know which crop they chose, Quest?"
"Um, no, Sir."
"They chose to plant peanuts. The peanut was a hardy plant, not threatened by the boll weevil. From the early 1900s, continuing through the present day peanuts are the major cash crop in south Alabama. Though we dare not traverse too close to the festivities, the National Peanut Festival is celebrated in Dothan (to our east) every year in November. Dothan has called itself, "The Peanut Capital of the World." This is all due to the tiny, nasty little insect, called the Boll Weevil, who ate up Alabama's cotton crops."
"That's a great philosophy, Dad. 'When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.'"
"Or in this case, 'When the bolls give you weevils, make peanuts.'"
Just past Dothan and Columbia, Alabama was the Georgia state line.
"We've made it, Buddy. We're in Georgia. Let's keep walking. The town with my next job shouldn't be too far now."
"I'm tired, Dad. Can we stop for the night?"
"Since I just saw the sign indicating that this is the Flint River, then we surely can stop for the night. The Flint River is my trail to follow to my next job!"
"Do you think this thicket will work? I need to fall over into sleep."
"This is great, Quest. You start to get a good night's sleep. I'll look for food. Our provisions are getting low."
"Sounds great, Dad. See you in the morning."
"Rest well, Son."
Lake Blackshear, Georgia
At first light, Casa and Quest started to follow the Flint River all the way to Lake Blackshear, Georgia, which is a man-made lake created by the Flint River Dam. Amazingly enough, the trip took two days because they had to avoid the people, who lived in the towns along the way. The biggest town was Albany, which counted on the river so much that it even built its Civic Center on the rise above one of the river banks.
By the end of Day #2 they had found a new home in a thick stand of pine trees on a plateau, not too far from the lake. The trip from Enid Trails had taken its toll on Quest. He really did need to sleep and rest his weary limbs. As soon as he was "sawing logs," Casa starting "getting a lay of the land," searching for the new job site he had been told was here. A couple of hours after dark he saw it. The sign read, "Bear Meadows: an Oso Community."
"I better go back to get some sleep myself," Dad thought. "I sure want to get up at first light in order to be the first one to meet the foreman in the morning. I need this job."
After a great interview, Casa landed his job, breezing through his first day "with flying colors" because he had what it took to be an "excellent asset to this construction team." He knew that he had brought his family into a great new season.
Warwick Forest Elementary School
"Well, Good Evening, Little Buddy. Have you been sleeping all day?"
"Yes, Sir. I have. I'm sorry."
"No. No, Sir. I don't need any apology. The trip was long. Actually, it was probably too long for a growing young man like yourself to have to accomplish in such a short period of time. I certainly don't need an apology. I'm proud of you, Son. It was time for you to sleep all day. Embrace it. Worthy activity for you, especially considering..."
"Considering what, Dad?"
"Considering that in one week you will be starting your Fifth-Grade year.
"Where am I going this year? Do you know that, yet, Dad?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. The foreman said that pretty much all of the workers on the construction crew have enrolled their children at Warwick Forest Elementary School."
"Is that a good thing?"
"You bet because (and this is the coolest thing) the school is near the construction site. It's only a five-minute walk between the two places. Isn't that great?"
"I,...I,...I think so."
"What's wrong, Buddy?"
"I'm feeling a little scared."
"How do I know that my teacher this year will be nicer than my teacher from last year?"
"Well, we don't know that, yet. However, we can trust that D'Oso Reimi has guided us to a new situation that will be beneficial to both of us. He cares about us deeply. You know that, right?"
"Yes, Sir. I do. Okay. I'll be Big. I'll hope for the best." He straightened his shoulders and gave a courageous smile.
"Let's get a good night's sleep, Quest. Tomorrow, we'll go early to the school and get you registered before anybody else. We'll curl up together tonight and enjoy once again that close bond we've had since you were a small cub. It's going to be alright. You'll see."
When father and son arrived at school the next morning, the nightly floodlights were still burning and the sky was still black. Before too long, however, Mrs. Gerry Giraffe came loping to school with her head and neck making the most animated silhouette against the new dark blue sky, which was threaded with the golden rays of the sun.
"Good Morning, Gentlemen," Mrs. Giraffe said with a smile. "I am the school principal, and who might you be?"
"I am Casa. I got a job yesterday on the Bear Meadows Construction crew. I was told that this is where most of thecrew send their children to school."
"Yes. I have met many of those workers. Fine gentlemen. Their children are excellent students,...every one of them." Mrs. Giraffe turned toward Quest with a smile, "And I'll just bet that this fine, strapping young Sir is the reason for our conversation this morning."
"O, Yes, Indeed. Mrs. Giraffe, I would like you to meet Quest, my son. Quest, this is Mrs. Giraffe."
"It's so nice to meet you, Quest."
"Thank you, Mrs. Giraffe. I am glad to meet you, too."
"Well, who do I see, and right on schedule, I might add?" asked Mrs. Giraffe.
"I don't know," said Quest. "Who?"
"Why! This is your fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hazelton. Mrs. Hazelton, I would like you to meet Quest, who is one of your new students. Quest, this is Mrs. Hazelton. She will be your fifth-grade teacher."
"I'm glad to meet you, Quest." sang Mrs. Hazelton.
"I'm glad to meet you, too, Mrs. Hazelton."
"Mrs. Hazelton, I would like you to meet Mr. Bear. (His first name is Casa.) Casa, I like to introduce Mrs. Hazelton. (Her first name is Ethelene.)"
"I am so very glad to meet you, Ethelene," Casa smiled. "What a lovely name!"
Mrs. Hazelton blushed and that put an end to the introductions.
"Casa, I have noticed that many of the children come to our school on the first day with both of their parents," said Mrs. Giraffe. "Will Mrs. Bear be coming later?"
"Sadly, she will not be coming at all,...ever." Casa hung his head. "She was killed in an earthquake that threatened to permanently separate Quest and me, too. Ossie was a good woman, a great lady, an amazing mother and a wonderful friend. I miss her very much. Actually, we both do."
"I wish you could be my Mom!" Quest blurted out.
Casa was horrified.
Mrs. Giraffe was amused.
Mrs. Hazelton gently responded to the situation. "I'm honored that you would want me to be your mother, Quest, but why do you think I would be a good mother for you?"
"You have the same kind of smile that Mom used to wear. You speak in a gentle tone like she did. Your face is peaceful and loving like Mom's face."
"Those are such great sentiments, Quest. I will treasure them always. Let's spend the first part of the year getting to know each other better. I promise I will be the best kind of mother to you that a teacher can be throughout this school year."
"Funny,...but it seems like I already know you. Have we ever met before?"
"Well, I didn't want to mention it, but I observed your spanking when you were in Mrs. Carlyle's second-grade class at Carrier Elementary School."
Quest's jaw dropped. He hung his head in shame.
Mrs. Hazelton gently lifted his chin to look her in the eyes. "It was not my place to say so that day, but I did not believe that you deserved that spanking. That was why I didn't say anything to you that day, but I walked back to my classroom crying all the way."
"You didn't think that I deserved that spanking? Why?"
"Mrs. Carlyle had a reputation for overreacting. What you both did by standing up to her in gentleness the next day changed the atmosphere in her classroom, in the school, and I am convinced that you saved her from losing her job at the end of the year. After your spanking, Mrs. Carlyle was a different lady. Everyone knew it. You did a great service to all of us, though you may not have know about it, until today."
"You're right. I didn't. But I'm so glad I did something good for so many others, even though it was a very difficult time in my life. But why are you here and not still there? You didn't get fired, did you? Surely you didn't get fired? How could they?"
"No, Quest. I didn't get fired. I simply needed a change of scenery. You see my husband died a couple of years ago, due to heat exhaustion, during a very hot day at his construction site. I tried to keep teaching at Carrier, but I could only take it for about six months. I had to leave. There were too many memories of Carl...in that 'neck of the woods.' My husband was like your Mom, Quest. Carl was a good man, a great gentleman, an amazing husband and a wonderful friend. And I miss him very much."
The Friendship Begins
"It is, indeed, a great privilege to meet you, Mrs. Hazelton. I am very sorry for your loss. I have no doubt that Carl was a great man. After all, he chose such an excellent lady as yourself."
"Why, Mr. Bear, you are most kind. I, too, am very sorry for your loss. I'm convinced that Ossie was an amazing wife and mother. It has, no doubt, been difficult to be both father and mother for such a strong cub as Quest."
"How did you survive the journey from Fort Worth, alone? Quest and I came from north of you in Enid Trails. The trip was exhausting and treacherous, but we had each other for company. Did you really travel alone?"
"Well, no. I came with two of my lifetime best friends. They could see how troubled I was in widowhood. Being widowed themselves, they convinced me to '...Go East and we'll keep traveling, until we find something interesting...or the water stops us, first.' The whole journey took about eight or nine months...because we're not as young as we used to be. Her eyes blinked with a sweet smile. We all have stories to tell. Miss Slippy's River was easy enough to cross, yet her land was quite unkind, but we made it. I teach the fifth-grade class. My BFF, since our first day of school, Suzie Shellcracker, is a tortoise. She slowed our pace, but sometimes the two of us bears shared carrying responsibilities and we made better time. Suzie teaches the Special Education Class since she's great with slow learners." She winked and Casa's mouth turned up at the corners.
"What about your other friend? You said that three of you traveled together."
"I did, didn't I? Ellen Shumacher, who is also a bear, became our BFF in third grade. We're all still together to this very day. Ellen teaches third-grade. This means, that at least for now, if a child starts in Warwick Forest Elementary School, and goes all the way through, then that child gets to experience Los Tres Amigos one right after another."
"I would love to hear more about the trip. We may have similar experiences to share."
"That is, no doubt, quite true. However, I need to turn my attention to other students and their parents, who have just started to arrive. Could we continue this conversation at a later date?"
"School nights must be filled with a large number of responsibilities for you. May we have dinner together on Friday night? I am quite sure that would be a respite from the week."
"That sounds like a wonderful idea. What time did you have in mind?"
"How about six o'clock? We could start early, have a leisurely meal and then our conversation could be unhurried. Would that be good for you?"
"That would be great for me. Let's meet right here at the front door of the school. I like to stay after school to finish grading papers. That way I don't have to think about school work when I get home for the evening."
"I like it. That's a plan. I like your style. That would work for me, too, if I were a teacher. Friday night it is,...at 6:00 right here at the front door of the school. Have a great school day,...Both of You."
"We will." Mrs. Hazelton assured him.
"'Bye, Dad. I know I'm gonna have fun here," Quest said.
The First Day of Class
"Good morning, Students," Mrs. Hazelton said with a smile. "Welcome to the fifth grade at Warwick Forest Elementary School. I'm Mrs. Hazelton,...and...WE...are going to have a wonderful year together." She chuckled a little, and then said, "I was going to say, 'For those of you, who are new to my class,' which I realized is every one of you. So, that goes without saying. What I really would like to address is this. For those of you, who are new to our school, I should probably give you a little direction on this first day of class. The playground is the part that most of you have already seen. The playground is vital to a great day of learning. Healthy bodies make healthy minds. Therefore, we will be playing outside twice during every school day. We will visit that 'room' for thirty minutes in the morning and for thirty minutes in the afternoon. The bathrooms are located at the end of each wing. They have been conveniently placed near the door that leads outside to the playground."
"Where is the lunchroom, Mrs. Hazelton?" asked Harry Hippo. "Lunch is my favorite class of the day. If we had classes in the lunchroom all day long, then that would be my favorite school day."
"I can see that you excel in Lunch, Harry Hippo," Mrs. Hazelton smiled, having the slightest bit of fun with her response. "However, I am quite sure you would feel ill-used when you began to realize that you were not able to eat while having classes. That would constitute 'unusual punishment,' which is why we do not have classes in the lunchroom. Besides, how would the lunchroom ladies do their work with students filling all of their workspaces throughout the school day?"
"I didn't think of that, Ma'am. I just love to eat."
"No worries, Harry. I will be quite considerate of that fact as often as I have the opportunity."
"Thank you, Mrs. Hazelton. But,...um...is it okay to tell me where the lunchroom is located...so...I'll know where to go for Lunch Class?"
"My Goodness! I haven't told you that, yet, have I? The Lunchroom is the big room in the middle of the school building. It is located right behind Mrs. Giraffe's Principal's Office. Does everyone understand where the lunchroom is?"
"Yes, Ma'am. We do. Thank you."
"Well, then. Now that we know the process of our school day, shall we begin it? Open your Math books to page #5. We'll begin with some advanced sums in three columns. Let's see how our Math adds up for today," Mrs. Hazelton said with a wink. "Stanley Seal, please start us off by reading the first paragraph, if you will."
"Orrrrk! Orrrk! Orrrk!..." the silly seal gutturalized while slapping his flippers together as though he were clapping.
"Very funny, My Good Young Sir. Just read the paragraph,...PLEASE. Thank you."
Stanley became serious for the moment and sealed the deal by reading the paragraph as instructed. Thus went the day,...a mixture of humor and seriousness, which is pretty much the way that fifth-graders like to live.
"This is going to be an exceptionally good year," Mrs. Hazelton smiled to herself.
"How very prompt you are, My Good Sir."
"I like to show respect to the other party by being early."
"How right you are. I tell all of my classes, 'If you are early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late. And if you're late, then that's just plain rude.' It's something my friend, Bethany Blaze, the eagle, said, during our first year of teaching. She didn't seem to mind when I adopted the saying as my own."
"Regarding your philosophy, I could not agree more."
"You, Dear Casa, were fifteen minutes early because I saw you walk up to the door. About that same time, I looked at the clock on my wall, and the hands pointed to 5:45 P.M. For the next few minutes I glanced out and saw you at parade rest, but quite still. That makes two pluses for you, regarding our first 'appointment,'...Sir. You showed me respect by being early, and at the same time you waited patiently without fidgeting."
"My compliments, too, My Lady. You were five minutes early yourself."
"I wanted to honor your respect by being somewhat early myself. My girlfriends pride themselves on the Ladies' Penchant for being Fashionably Late, but that seems inconsistent to me since they expect all of their escorts and suitors to be prompt and early."
"An honorable lady, indeed."
"Why Thank You. Now, as to dinner what did you have in mind?"
"Well, since I'm new in this 'neck of the woods,' I had to ask around for suggestions. It is amazing to me the names of restaurants that some of the guys on the crew consider to be acceptable for their girlfriends, wives or Mommas. I got input like, 'Hey, Furball! Take 'er ta the 'Moo-N-Chew.' Somebody else said, 'She'll love 'Flies and Fries.' My all-time Not Favorite was 'Dunk Yer Paw & Gulp the Honey.'"
Ethelene snickered. "My BFFs do it all the time because they want to spend time with their beaus. It's the choice of the guys, but I know my friends would like something nicer for a quiet evening with their loved one."
"Sadly, our generation, and those younger than us, have lost what our parents and grandparents knew all too well," said Casa. "'Honor another and you show respect for yourself.'"
"Tonight, I have spared no expense because I would like to enjoy real conversation in a quiet, 'out-of-the-way' place that is known for excellent cuisine. The foreman suggested, The Emerald on 77th. I knew I had found my new favorite restaurant."
"Oh, No! That's too expensive!"
"No worries, My Lady. It's worth the price to have cliff-view seats, overlooking beautiful Azur Lake, calm, quiet evening breezes, bottomless teacups and very few patrons around because few can afford the luxurious environs."
"But the other restaurants are more reasonably priced."
"Okay. I am aware of the price difference, and I may not always be able to afford The Emerald, but for tonight it is more than reasonable for the conversation that I have on my heart."
"Great. Let's go then."
"We're almost there. The boss showed me a shortcut in order to give us more time to talk."
The Prelude of Words
"Ethelene, before we go in, I'd like to apologize about something that Quest said to you the other day."
"You mean about wanting me to be his mother?"
"Yes. Please, know that I didn't put him up to that. I had no way of knowing you were widowed."
"Casa, there is nothing to forgive. Quest was speaking from the heart of a little boy, who needs a mother. I am quite sure he had no idea that his suggestion meant anything about you. I took his words just as they were expressed. A little cub, now my student, admires me and sees someone, who can fill a hole in his heart left by his dearly-departed mother."
"Well, that is a relief. Thank you so much."
"Is that to say you have no interest in me at all?"
"NO! NO! Nothing like that! It's only that I didn't want to appear to be too pushy and forward on our first date."
"'First' indicating that there are more to come. That sounds promising. I like that."
"You got me. I miss my dear wife very much, and I am hoping that we are starting a good friendship. I would be lying if I didn't tell you that I hope a good friendship lays a foundation for more in our future."
"My Good Sir, I saw that in your eyes on the first day of school. THAT is the main reason why I accepted your invitation in the first place. I miss the companionship of my dearest male friend, my life's love, my late husband. As Oso Amor-Corazon, one of our greatest bear authors, once wrote, 'Friendship is the greatest seed of Love.'"
Casa smiled broadly. "Let's go in, Dear Lady. We have much upon which to feast this night."
"Good Evening, Monsieur and Mademoiselle." The Maître D' greeted them. "Reservation for Casa Bear and friend is trimmed and ready on the balcony, outside. We even placed the Super Moon on the wall of the sky for added effect. I hope you will agree. Grainger will be your serveur. Please, be seated and become comfortable. Grainger will be with you momentarily."
"Oh, Casa! This is wonderful!" Ethelene exclaimed. "I think the view itself could be worth the price of the entire evening."
"I'm glad you like it, Ethelene," Casa said. "I thought so, too. When the waiter comes, I can order for you, if you like. What's your pleasure? Pheasant Under Glass? Filet Mignon? Porterhouse?"
"Casa, if you would not mind, I made a commitment to my health a few years ago. I am on a strictly vegetarian diet, now. You may order me the best salad on the menu. That would be great."
"It would be my pleasure. May I ask you one more question before he arrives?"
"Would your diet permit a pasta dish, if we are careful to be sure that there is no meat in the sauce?"
"Why, Yes. I love pasta. What did you have in mind?"
"As I planned this evening, I took the liberty to visit them a couple of nights ago. I asked them one question. 'Do you create homage dishes?' They were curious, asking for more information. I added, 'I have heard of the famous chef in Modena, Italy, named Massimo Bottura.' They were over-the-moon, responding that they have tried to learn his dishes from his videos. 'Good,' I said. 'I am very interested in the dish he calls 'The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna.' Have you attempted to create something like it by your Main Chef?' They said that he had and that they believed I would enjoy it very much. With your permission, I will order it for you now because I see that our serveur has arrived."
"Oh, Yes. Please. That sounds lovely."
"Good Evening, Monsieur and Mademoiselle," the serveur greeted them. "Are you ready choisir (or to choose) the meal?"
"Indeed, we are," responded Casa. "Please, bring us two plates of your Chef's Homage to 'The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna.'"
"Choisir Magnifiqué! What a Wonderful Choice!" glowed Grainger, their serveur. "I will place your order très vite. I will be so very fast!"
"You may place the order very fast, if you wish, Grainger, but please assure them that there is to be no rush tonight," Casa said. "We wish to have a long, comfortable conversation. The food is merely the accompagnement to accompany to our evening. Friendship is the main course. Is that acceptable with our serveur Ç'est Magnifique or Quite Magnificently?"
"Oui monsieur. With a strong Yes, Yes, from my heart." And with that Grainger disappeared without a sound.