Creative Nonfiction: River of Ghosts

by Curtis Smith

A department colleague retires, and when she cleans out her desk, she brings me a shoebox. For twenty-plus years we’ve taught special learning in a public high school. We share a history. We have, in the reticent vernacular of rural Pennsylvania, seen some things. In the box, hundreds of snapshots. Clowning boys. Girlfriends with arms draped over each other’s shoulders. The stiff poses of school-picture day. A few in their graduation gowns. The photos are ten, fifteen, twenty years old. There’s Joey and his mullet. There’s Sammy in her Frankie Says Relax T-shirt. As we sift, we exchange the fragments we know of their lives—the ones who’ve learned trades. The ones who have children of their own. The ones who’ve gone to jail. The ones who’ve died.

Over lunch, I return to the pictures. I have taught these children reading and math. We’ve discussed the importance of oral hygiene and a firm handshake. In return, they have humbled me with an appreciation of the proper wiring in my skull and the gift of a non-dysfunctional childhood. I hold a picture of a girl forced to eat from a dog bowl, her neck scarred with cigarette burns. A boy who slept in a horse stall when his father drank. There are a dozen others, all variations on the same, horrible theme. Here have been my teachers in the science of suffering, and where, I wonder, are they now?

More pictures—and there’s Sabrina and Tyler and Kelly Jo—but my focus drifts to the students I remember but can’t name. There has always been a transient element in my classroom. They come from states near and far—flotsam children borne on tides of growing seasons and race horses and prison sentences. Sometimes I encounter their kind on the highway, station wagons with suitcases lashed to the roof, pickups with dubiously secured cargo. In a rear window, a child or two, their gazes lost in the passing scenery.

I hold a snapshot taken in my old classroom. In the picture, I am young and strong, my face unlined. The boy beside me smiles despite his black eye. The years have swallowed him, a drowning in the ocean of memory. He may as well be a stranger, but I know he’s not. There was a time when I reached out as he flowed past. The proof is in my hand, but there is no corresponding tug in my heart.

The bell rings, and I hurry to finish my lunch. My class files in. I offer a smile to one and all. Much has changed since I first came here. Gone is the ditto machine’s crystalline scent. Gone are the leg warmers and stone-washed denim worn by the parents of my current students. Gone are unalarmed doors. Gone is the novelty of seeing a policeman in the hallway. In the not-so-distant future, I’ll be gone, too, my years beneath this roof just another fading memory. A new teacher will unlock my door each morning. I will step aside and slip into the river of ghosts.

Curtis Smith’s most recent books are Bad Monkey (stories, Press 53), Truth or Something Like It (novel, Casperian Books), and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside).

What does compressed CNF have or not have as compared to compressed fiction? How, if it all, does your own CNF differ from your compressed fiction? I love compressed fiction. I can only hope my short-short CNF pieces can carry a moment the way a good flash piece does. My compressed fictions usually hinge on a single image or sentence. A fiction writer can craft that moment or image. In CNF, I have to discover that telling moment in the otherwise muddled reality of day-to-day life. I like the 2,000-4,000 word essay—but writing a brief, strong CNF piece is pretty daunting. I fall short more than I succeed.

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