25 Apr The Living History Project
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"The Living History Project"Written by Christine O'Neill
Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
One of my least favorite parts about being a middle school history teacher is the bullshit “Living History” assignments we give at the end of every school year. Kids are supposed to sit with their grandparents and video tape, voice record, or transcribe their oldest memories for posterity (and for an easy way to bring up their GPA).
I have been doing this for seventeen years, and when I collected the projects this time around, I assumed they would be as dull, if not duller than usual. This had not been a particularly bright class.
So I went home, poured myself a glass of wine, and prepared for a long night of “I only owned two pairs of pants when I was your age” and “My brother got beat with a newspaper for hitting a baseball into a neighbor’s yard.” And of course, these projects were peppered with innocent, old-person comments that were so horribly sexist and racist you just had to laugh.
Now, I had a girl in my class whom I will call Olivia. She was pudgy, quiet, and proved herself a consistent B student. I expected her project to be as unremarkable as her, and perhaps that’s why I was so profoundly disturbed by what I witnessed that night.
Olivia had submitted two discs for some reason, so I began with the one marked “interview.” My screen hiccuped twice before a grainy image of a living room came into view. The place was a hoarder’s hell. Olivia was curled up in an armchair clutching a notebook and looking like a scared animal. Across from her sat a man with a somber countenance, smoking a cigarette and staring at her expectantly.
“Go ahead,” a woman’s voice whispered from behind the camera. Olivia’s owlish eyes flashed towards the screen, then back to the man.
“I am here with my Great Uncle Stephen,” she began almost inaudibly. “He is going to tell us about his oldest memories from being in the army.”
Great Uncle Stephen looked like he’d rather be in a goddamn trench at the moment, but he waited patiently for the questions to begin.
Not surprisingly, Olivia read verbatim from the suggested questions sheet I had handed out to the students. He answered her curtly. Once or twice I heard her mother whisper “Speak up, Olivia” from behind the camera. Typical, boring shit.
So I was intrigued when Olivia set down the notebook and asked, “Did you like being in the army?”
That was totally off-script. Great Uncle Stephen emitted a chain smoker’s wheeze. “Nope. Glad to get out of my town though.”
“Where did you go?”
“Uh-huh,” she said. I doubted she knew what the Balkans were, and my suspicion was confirmed when she asked, “Was Baukiss very different from here?”
Mom cleared her throat from behind the camera, perhaps encouraging Great Uncle Stephen to be a little more forthcoming.
But Olivia seemed genuinely interested. “Uncle Stephen,” she asked, “what is your very worst memory from the army?”
The old man crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and then slowly lifted himself out of his chair. “I’ll be back,” he mumbled. The camera cut off.
When the screen flashed back on, everything was the same except Great Uncle Stephen had several pieces of paper in plastic sleeves laid atop all the crap sitting on his coffee table. One, he held in his hand.
“I was a kid when I enlisted,” he said, looking at Olivia. “Your brother’s age,” he told her. Olivia nodded. “I never saw combat. Both of my deployments were to cities in Eastern Europe that had been destroyed by civil wars. Everything was a mess. I felt like a janitor for fuck’s sa-”
“Ahem!” Mom coughed.
Great Uncle Stephen sighed and looked at his paper. “My unit was assigned to a school that had been obliterated by all the violence. Broken windows, caved-in rooms – and for some reason, the part that got to me the most was that the school had been like this for years before we got there. No one had lifted a finger to fix it. I saw kids walk by it on their way to go beg for money or whatever shit they did-”
The camera dipped towards the floor as I heard Mom whisper harshly at Great Uncle Stephen. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but it wasn’t hard to imagine.
“Do you want to hear this goddamn story or not?” I heard him bark in response. “Then you better let me tell it how I want.”
“Mom,” Olivia chimed. “Please stop interrupting.”
“Are you presenting this in front of the class?”
“No, Mom, we’re just handing it in to the teacher.”
“I’m sure he’s heard the word shit before,” Great Uncle Stephen contributed helpfully. I wasn’t a “he” as a matter of fact, but other than that the statement was accurate.
The camera was lifted and after a couple of blurry focus adjustments, the shot was the same as before.
“Ahh, I’m talking too much anyway,” he grumbled. He lifted the piece of paper in his hand close to his face. “In the basement, I found this letter. I didn’t know what it said but I had a buddy of mine translate it. So I’m gonna read it now. And then I’ll tell you what I saw in that basement.”
A chill ran down my spine. Mom zoomed in to Great Uncle Stephen and his letter. His palsied hands trembled as he held up the paper. This is what he read:
I never loved my country. So many of these skirmishes are born from patriotism, a power struggle for the shards of a once-great empire, but I do not care what name my home has on a map. This fighting is senseless and I stay as far away from it as I can.
It was not these attacks and disorganized violence that took the lives of my wife and child. It was illness. Mercifully, it happened quickly for the baby. Nadja suffered for longer. I watched in horror knowing I could do nothing for them. My only solace is that I was there for them every step of the way. I stopped going to work one day, and no one came after me. I doubt they noticed I was gone. Since the school was simply across a field, visible from my window, it would have been easy to go for a few hours each day and come home quickly to care for them. But what was the point? All I did was clean floors. I was as useless to the world as I was to my family.
I tried to take Nadja to the hospital, but the journey was too long and taxing. I brought her home and she died that night.
After Nadja and the baby were gone… well, I don’t remember much. I didn’t leave my hovel, barely ate and slept, thought many times of taking my own life. Tempting though it was, I felt paralyzed by my own helplessness.
The one thing that kept me sane was my radio. I never turned it off once. Even though I didn’t listen to the words being said – in fact, the channel I got the clearest was in English (I think) which I don’t speak a lick of. But the voices, the music, and the true knowledge that life existed beyond this violent city sustained me.
I have no idea how much time passed before I saw the light of day again. I was dizzy from hunger, so finding food was my priority. My radio came with me, of course. Since I first holed myself up, it has gone everywhere with me. It talks to me as I sleep and as I wake. I don’t know what it’s saying, but I know I would die without it.
Once I had some water and food, it occurred to me that the only thing left to do was go back to work. So I did. The following morning, I simply returned to the school where I was a janitor and got back to work.
Nobody made a big deal out of it. Like I said, Nadja had been sick for a long time, and those who worked at the school knew it. I appreciate that no one had pestered me to come back to work during the hardest days of my life. The teachers never said much to me, but we smiled at each other in the halls and that mutual respect was perhaps the reason I decided to come back at all.
The place had gone to the dogs without me, so I simply grabbed my broom and rags from my closet and set to cleaning. Everyone is grateful to have me back, I know. And the best part is that nobody minds my radio. I bring it with me everywhere and keep the volume low enough not to disrupt the students. No one has ever complained. In fact, I suspect they like it.
The schoolhouse is not very big, but does require a lot of maintenance. The floors are always sticky and stained, so I spend most of my time mopping. Kids make messes – I guess that’s why I’m still in business. Sometimes I have to move things around to make sure I get every spot on the floor beautiful and clean, but I take pride in that.
And the repairs! The school always needs tune-ups here and there, and I am happy to help. Some days I’m reconstructing a desk that broke as I whistle along with the radio, other times I handle more serious, structural issues. Days when I have work like this, I feel truly instrumental, like a cog in a larger machine. How could this school survive without me? It took me a long time, but I once again feel that I have purpose.
There is a larder behind the school that is full of preserved food. In lieu of payment, I am allowed to take as much food as I need. That arrangement is fine – what would I do with money anyway? I used to bring the food back to my home, just one field away from the school, but when I started sleeping in the basement no one seemed to notice. This school is special to me and I cannot leave it unguarded.
When I am besieged with memories of my wife and baby, I turn up the volume on the radio to drown out such thoughts. It works for me every time.
Except this morning.
Because this morning, I woke up to dead silence.
I frantically examined the radio to see what had happened. I honestly cannot tell you how many days in a row I have been using it. Did it simply live out its life and die naturally? I have spent the entire day trying to fix it. Most of this time, I have been crying. I am losing my mind without it.
I have given myself until sundown. If I cannot fix it by then, I am going to take my life. I am writing this because the sunlight is starting to die and I know what my fate shall be.
I have thought about taking one last walk through the halls of my school, saying goodbye to the students and teachers. I know I will be missed. But I cannot bring myself to leave this room. I cannot go anywhere knowing that my radio is dead in here.
There are no more tears in me. It feels now like I can’t catch my breath. I vomited what little food I had in my stomach and I am growing dizzy again, like I did after Nadja died. I am not long for this world.
But before I take my life, I have closed the door to this room and stuck a chair beneath the handle. It is the only room in the basement and has a small casement that lets in just enough light for me to see what I am doing. If anyone is kind enough to come looking for me, they should not be met with this gruesome sight. Perhaps they will see the door is blocked, smell my rotting body, and simply forget I ever existed.
But I have placed both my radio and this note outside the door. Kind sir, if you are reading this, I have one humble request: please fix it. Save my radio. It did not deserve to die in its sleep and I am ashamed that I cannot revive it.
Now I am ready to join Nadja and little Ludmilla in heaven. I hope this school can find another janitor who loves and cares for it the way I do.
The hour is now. Do not forget my radio.
When Mom zoomed back out, Olivia had tears in her eyes. “Thank you for sharing, Uncle Stephen,” Mom said, her voice choked. “I think we have enough.”
“Wait!” Olivia chirped. “He said there’s more. What did you find?”
Before Great Uncle Stephen could open his mouth, the image disappeared. My jaw dropped. Was that it? What did Great Uncle Stephen see?
I promptly remembered that there was a second disc. This one was unmarked, but I hoped it contained the rest of the interview.
There was no video, only audio. The voice that started up was Olivia’s.
“Hi, Miss Gerrity. I’m sorry about my mom, but she refused to record the rest of what my uncle was saying. But I asked him to continue and secretly recorded the story as a voice memo on my phone. I remember you said earlier this year that history is written by the people who win wars.” She sucked in a breath and commenced crying. “But everyone’s history is important, even if they are sad, pathetic people and even if they never won a single thing in their life. I haven’t slept through the night since I finished this project, but you have to hear what my uncle has to say.”
There were tears in my eyes, too. The sincerity of her words was beautiful. I was also flattered that she had remembered some trite phrase I threw around because it was what my history teachers said to me.
Before I got too sappy over it, the audio began again.
“Fine,” came Mom’s frustrated voice. “If you want to hear the rest of the story, fine, but this is not appropriate for a school project.”
“Let me finish,” Great Uncle Stephen snapped. “If it’s too much for you, help yourself to a snack in the kitchen. But Olivia wants to know what happened.”
I heard her mother mumble something and walk away. Olivia and her uncle were alone. I imagined her looking at him expectantly.
“So did you find the radio? Or did it get ruined when the school got blown up?”
He rasped and I heard the distinct click of a lighter. “That letter,” he began slowly, “had a date on it.”
“What date?” she inquired hungrily.
“It was dated two weeks before we started rebuilding the school.”
“Didn’t you say the school had been destroyed like two years ago?”
“Yes,” replied Great Uncle Stephen. “It had been.”
There was silence as I felt goosebumps on my arms. The images that came to my mind were almost too overwhelming to express, but Great Uncle Stephen put them into words effortlessly. Clearly he had spent his whole life thinking about it.
“This man, this Stanislav, went to a vandalized, falling apart schoolhouse and cleaned up blood and rubble like it was spilled drinks and dust. He smiled at dead bodies in the hallway and believed they were smiling back at him because they liked his radio. He moved around corpses so he could sweep the ground under them. The roof was half collapsed, so when it rained, he must’ve gotten soaking wet but was so oblivious that he didn’t even feel a thing.” I could hear Olivia crying steadily. “I found the larder he was talking about. It was all pickled, preserved food that probably tasted like shit. Most of the stuff was moldy.”
“Did – did you see the dead body?”
“Yes. Hanging from the ceiling, but still amazingly… lifelike. He wasn’t rotting away. This hadn’t happened years ago.”
“Did he look peaceful?” she asked, a chord of desperation in her voice.
“Couldn’t tell you. The smell was rank, and his face was blue and his eyes were bulging. Like this.” I imagined him demonstrating.
“And the radio?” Olivia wept.
I heard Great Uncle Stephen take a long drag of his cigarette. “It was there, alright. And it was still on.”
This story was adapted from a concept by Nicholas Giampietro.
🔔 More stories from author: Christine O'Neill
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