nonfiction by Matthew James Babcock
I remember 1978 because it was the year Mrs. Turnipseed, my favorite teacher, touched herself in front of our class. It was also the year my school experienced a massive scabies outbreak. That’s right, scabies. Sarcoptic mange. From the mite Sarcoptes scabiei. Latin: scabere for “to scratch.” In 1978, a scabies plague swept through Jerome, Idaho, sparing no one. Or so you would have thought. In reality, only three or four of Jefferson Elementary’s unwashed scamps ended up showing signs of infestation. But to hear the teachers talk you would have sworn Mothra had parked a Death Ray outside. Parents phoned in. Kids cried and went AWOL at recess. Nurses and doctors worried from room to room, slinging clipboards like riot shields, cupping conversations behind their hands. At the apex of the hysteria, our principal, Lavar Buttars, appeared in a powder-blue suit and white alligator shoes, his eyes slits of concern behind tortoise-shell glasses.
“Have the students take these home,” he said, handing Mrs. Turnipseed a sheaf of pamphlets.
We layered gooey papier-mache strips on our balloon solar systems and filtered glances at Mrs. Turnipseed as she gnawed her bottom lip and examined one of the doomsday tracts.
“Class,” she said, rising. “Read these and take them home to your parents.”
On my walk home, I consulted the pamphlet. My feet softened to Spam with each page I turned. Already I felt like a leper, an outcast consigned to a life of disease-ridden panhandling.
The first page showed the mite itself, a fanged Medusa of excoriating scarlet. The illustration was part crawdad, part Rosemary’s baby, a clawed gargoyle that could slice your aorta and chug the blood like a Bavarian on his first week in the Hofbräuhaus. Just looking at the nasty little parasite made me feel like thousands were bobsledding through my arteries, hacking the walls with rusty pickaxes, and pogo-sticking on hypodermics filled with sulfuric acid.
I flipped a page, stepped off a curb. All around, my classmates stampeded over the sidewalks like a jailbreak of delirious Who fans, backpacks bouncing, lunch buckets clanking. With uncaged ecstasy, they were scattering social studies homework to the wind and bearing homeward the glad tidings of millions of itsy bitsy hook-jawed, feces-puking vermin that would soon be spelunking through their nervous systems and pumping putrid green eggs and ham into their livers.
“See ya tomorrow!” one of my friends called.
“Yeah,” I said, uncertain.
Areas of infection, one pamphlet caption read. Two grinning cartoon figures, a boy and girl in underwear, occupied a single panel. Raspberry ovals seeped from key areas on their bodies. Under arms, the text continued. Between fingers, toes, around genitals. I stared at the cartoon boy. Genitals? The word slumped in my mind: a hunk of mystery meat in butcher paper. A thorny sickness settled in my bowels. It was worse than I had imagined. I was vulnerable in areas I didn’t know I had. At home, my mom took the pamphlet and scanned it.
“Okay,” she said, half-smiling. With a magnet shaped like a bunch of cherries, she tacked it to our mustard-green refrigerator. The next day, we faced Mrs. Turnipseed in our desks, sweat buttering our palms.
“Class,” she said, holding up a scabies pamphlet. Our eyes revolved to the image of the butt-ugly bug, the scabby mutant of apocalyptic scourge. “It’s our turn for examinations. You won’t have to do it here. But you’re going to have to remove some of your clothing outside, with a doctor or nurse.”
Examination? I quailed. Nobody had told us we’d be naked. We spun our heads like gophers besieged by water moccasins. The choo-choo train alphabet on the wall spelled destruction.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Mrs. Turnipseed explained, the pamphlet parted in her hand like a hymnal. “Scabies can appear here, under your arms. In between places. Fingers, toes, elbows, knees. And here, in this area.”
With that, she spread her fingers, flattened her palm, and rubbed her hand around and around, over her vulva.
Like most third graders, we possessed a knowledge of human sexuality that was purely anatomical. We knew what was in the toolbox of taboos, but we’d left it in the garage. Embarrassed, I looked around. My classmates faced forward, smiling, as placid as Hale-Bopp comet clones ready for liftoff. Their faces said it: Mrs. Turnipseed’s gamble had worked. Everyone seemed to feel that if our teacher could touch her privates in front of the class, we could drop our drawers in the hall and live to see fourth grade. Yes, Mrs. Turnipseed was our Caesar, and we would cross our Rubicon, with or without our loins girt about us. Newly emboldened, we filed out, one by one, to face the executioners who would yank down our Fruit of the Looms to check our crotches for creepy-crawlies that, unless purged, would drive us mad with the urge to scratch off our genitals.
Decades after 1978, scabies still scares the bahjeezus out of people. In The Journal of Parasitology, one study at the University of Wrocław reveals that in Poland scabies infection is subject to obligatory governmental tracking and treatment. Lonc and Okulewicz, the study’s authors, uncovered what amounts to a scabies romp of Dionysian proportions in Poland’s Lower Silesian Region, particularly in the Legnica-Walbrzych provinces, part of the “so-called black triangle.” Lonc and Okulewicz class Poland’s Lubin City as an “ecodisaster,” a hotbed of copper production and, by extension, a never-ending Woodstock for scabies.
In this same journal, research connects scabies to low milk production in cattle. Other studies claim that coyotes in southern Texas with abnormal blood biochemical values showed signs of scabies. Rabbits, dogs, Nigerian schoolchildren—all clawing scabies from their skin—were found to have anything from lower levels of Vitamins A and E to reduced hemoglobin concentrations.
It would seem that for centuries scabies has been sucking us dry.
The malignant mite’s vampire history, however, didn’t keep it from scuttling onstage in 1917. In Giovanni de Rosalia’s one-act play, Nofrio the Innkeeper, Nofrio’s grandfather dies and bequeaths him one thousand lira, which Nofrio uses to purchase an inn, leaving him no money to staff the inn where he must now function as boniface, porter, and waiter.
The day his inn opens, Nofrio’s first guest, the bellicose and blustering Colonel, arrives and demands a room, victuals, and no guff. When the Colonel requests the services of the inn’s waiter, Nofrio, knowing there is no waiter, says, “He has scabies!” The Colonel, suddenly blooming with charity, offers to treat the non-existent waiter because he knows “a little about medicine.” Nofrio deflects the Colonel’s offer by claiming the waiter is in the hospital.
Soon, Totò and Franceschina, the runaway lovers, enter and ask for a room, making Nofrio promise that he will not let the girl’s father know they are in the inn. (The Colonel, of course, turns out to be Franceschina’s father, and has sworn to kill the scumbag who deflowered his virgin daughter).
During one exchange, as Nofrio struggles to keep the Colonel from discovering the presence of the lovers, the subject of the spectral waiter and his prickly rash surfaces again:
Col. Tomorrow? That’s useless. I won’t be here tomorrow.
Nof. (muttering): Thank goodness.
Col. Did you say, “Thank goodness”?
Nof. Not exactly! I said thank goodness my waiter is now feeling better because earlier he was
Col. Did he suffer a lot?
Nof. Oh yes, the kind of thing that would break your heart!
Col. Yet you had the heart to send him to the hospital.
Nof. You know, colonel, sir, since he had scabies I was afraid he might pass them on to the
people who came here.
Col. Ah, you’re right! And what if he passed them on to you?
Nof. Never! He couldn’t possibly pass them on to me.
Col. Yes, you must also have scabies.
Nof. I assure you I don’t, sir.
Col. I’m telling you that you do have scabies!
Nof. Okay, whatever you say!
As the average specimen of Sarcoptes scabiei might do if untreated, the Colonel threatens to kill the host, the one who provided lodging for the lovebirds. On learning her father is staying at the inn, Franceschina begins screaming, which alerts the Colonel, who comes lumbering into the hullaballoo. In a fusillade of dramatic buffoonery, the Colonel pardons the lovers (who have not yet consummated their love), then absolves Nofrio, to whom the Colonel offers a reward for his honesty. Nofrio refuses the gift, having learned his lesson: that as a host, he sucks.
1978: a year for tragicomedy. I can’t say why, but in my mind Jefferson Elementary’s scabies epidemic is connected to two handicapped students in our class: Mike Farnsworth and a boy named Kenny. It sounds daft, sure, but I remember being convinced that scabies had caused their deformities, that a grimy gang of the microscopic marauders had tunneled into their spinal cords, polluted their blood with green goo, and bequeathed them the twisted bodies of abused action figures. Hence, the daily terror of scabies infection under which I lived.
Handicapped: a word we aren’t supposed to use anymore. In casual circles, I still hear it along with other idiomatic dinosaurs, such as “that’s rad,” “totally,” and “hot to trot.” One fanciful claim connects “handicapped”—originally “cap-in-hand”—to Henry VII, who, the rumor goes, passed a law that allowed veterans to solicit support by holding upturned caps in their hands. More trustworthy seventeenth-century sources credit a group lottery game called “hand-in-cap,” which Samuel Pepys in a 1660 diary entry rates as “very good.” In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the word became associated with the practice of shackling weights to race horses to equalize their chances of winning. Then, in the late twentieth century—between my third-grade year and the invention of political correctness—the word “handicapped” acquired a tasteless flavor and was zapped from international lexicons of polite terminology.
But in 1978, Kenny and Mike were handicapped. That’s what we called them, what teachers called them, what they called themselves. It’s a word we tossed on the language bone pile, but for me it has the power to resurrect the day Mrs. Turnipseed did something out-of-character to Mike Farnsworth, something that would get a teacher fired today. It was my earliest introduction to paradox, a moment that struck me as horribly wrong and mercifully right in one eruption of impulse. It’s the reason I see third grade as a negative exposure, a postmodern still-life through maroon sunglasses of Schadenfreude, where a blindfolded, toga-swaddled Mrs. Turnipseed suspends good and evil in the balance in her immortal fist. Why we let our memories fingerpaint bulletproof smiley faces over the truth, I’ll never know. But ultimately this is what third grade taught me: memory lies.
Outside of my scabies conspiracy theory, I never knew, technically, what was wrong with Mike and Kenny. Mike’s legs didn’t work. Creaky braces sheathed his zigzag legs. Rattletrap stirrups were bolted through his clodhopper shoes. He walked with crutches, aluminum shafts with ratty gray rubber tips and forearm cuffs that clapped into place like torture-table fetters. He wore sturdy glasses. Rubber-cement saliva gummed his teeth. When he talked to you, his roving flounder eyes and clamoring mouth gave you the impression that he was mentally ill, when really he possessed a normal, if not advanced, intellect.
Anywhere in school, you could hear Mike coming. He would shout your name, and when you turned, he would panic and ask you a question, something drummed up to savor a moment of intimacy: “Matt, do you have a quarter?”; “Matt, do you have a piece of gum?”; “Matt, is there something we’re supposed to be doing?” Wherever Mike went, you’d hear the clack-shwup clack-shwup of his crutches and his lower half, which he dragged around like a weary seal.
Kenny was different. He was a foot shorter than the rest of us and used A-frame wooden crutches. A pink fiberglass body brace, lined with gauze, straitjacketed everything below his armpits. He had perfect vision and projected an air of advanced maturity. Whenever I spoke to him—it was the darting flicker of his oil-slick eyes—I got the sense that he was talking down to me. Not in a condescending manner, but as a college-educated specialist that the fates, due to some oversight, had sentenced to dwell among drones. His demeanor clothed him in a splash of androgyny: munchkin girl’s voice, cherry-vanilla face, coffee-brown Dutch boy haircut always in salon condition. He wore tough wool sweaters of vibrant patterns to cover his body brace: yellow and blue checkerboards, orange Apache kachinas, jumbles of purple cuneiform. Often, the locomotion of his arms and crutches shimmied his sweater up and exposed his back.
“Do me a favor,” he said one day, as we were leaving for recess.
“What?” I said.
“Scratch my back. And pull my sweater down. It’s okay.”
I looked around and, finding no savior, piloted my hand into the humid crawl space between his back and brace. I caught a glimpse of his flesh (scabies-free, as far as I could tell). I smelled something sour that reminded me of diapers. Odd bumps and moles dappled his skin. The ridges on his spine made me think I was looking at an adult skeleton trapped in a baby’s body. I gulped down hope and scratched him in several places, fencing in the dark.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
Puckering my lips, I yanked the sweater over his shoulder blades. I sheathed it over his brace like a big sock so the fabric reached his knees.
“See you outside,” he said, already on the move.
As nimble as a mantis, Kenny triangulated down the hall and hurled himself against the huge north door, which banged open. He exited with such rambunctious gusto, I felt a pang of jealousy. What would life be like, I wondered, if I were that heroic figure, needing nobody but myself?
We all tried our best to include Mike and Kenny. At times, though—during P. E., for example, though nobody admitted it—our best efforts transformed them into a tag-team freak show.
In third grade, P. E. was my favorite class. Why? Well, for one reason it granted us unmitigated bouts of orgiastic yelling and bounding around like baboons in places associated with order, decency, and compliance. Most notably, the cafeteria. It was during P. E. that Mike and Kenny felt the greatest disadvantages, especially when we played with two items: an old military parachute, and a stack of wheeled seats the teachers junked together in a utility closet.
It was difficult for me not to flop on the floor in unbridled, spasmodic glee when I learned we would be playing with the parachute. Once Mrs. Turnipseed and the other teachers announced a parachute day, we would squeal and sit cross-legged in a circle on the black and turtle-green tiles of the cafeteria floor. Then, the teachers would tumble out a battered army kit bag patched with fancy denim. At which point, we converged like a mob of African dogs on a leg of kudu.
The parachute games were legion. We required no instruction. First, we pulled the edges of the parachute taut and shook it, laughing like lunatics, buffeted by the windstorm. This action was mesmerizing. The supple ruffling of fabric. The silvery-green ripples of stitched silk. Then a puce four-square ball would bounce into the center, and our shrieks would shiver the ceiling as if we were being electrocuted. At this point, a competition ensued. No official sides. Just an arm-spazzing, body-jiggling free-for-all. As long as the ball didn’t boing out of play over your edge, you remained victorious. The wonderful thing was that the chute voided traditional notions of winning and losing. No matter where you stood, you were always opponent and teammate.
Just as we verged on gang apoplexy, our teachers would tell us to lift the parachute, then lower it. For some reason, the greatest thrill came when we glimpsed each other across the rise and fall of the transient circus tent. A ring of living paper dolls. A Mobius strip of underlings circling the globe. Then Mrs. Turnipseed would give the signal, and we would jump inside, jerk the chute edge over our heads, and sit. Without a word—for the first time all day—we crouched in hushed communion, a snicker leaking out here and there, as the pavilion of liquid silk descended, gathering us in the sacredness of the moment, safeguarding us from the dangers of mortality and adulthood. Always, the deflating dome defused our laughter, and I would watch the elfin grins of my classmates and think of the smokejumpers or snipers or special-op’s agents who had used the chute to jump from airplanes, perhaps to kill someone, or who had perhaps been killed themselves. It was electric, euphoric—the delicate fabric of our souls whiffling over spiderweb fibers of past and present, connecting us to a wordless future of bliss and suffering we would have to experience to understand.
Of course, Mike and Kenny couldn’t play with the parachute. So Mrs. Turnipseed and the other teachers involved them in the wheeled seat races. The wheeled seats were slightly peaked, like flattened pyramids, and made of blue and yellow polyurethane. The four wheels on each seat swiveled, allowing you to sit in lotus position, clamp your hands to the edges, and spin into oblivion—or have someone, as Arthur Moretti did to me, hurl you like a bowling ball across the cafeteria into a barricade of metal folding chairs.
As unbelievable as it may sound, at the end of P. E. we always cleared the floor and cheered for the main event: Mike vs. Kenny. Without any demurral from either boy, they would bellyflop like commandos on the wheeled seats and, using a frenzied butterfly-stroke, race Rebel-Without-a-Cause style across the cafeteria. Through sloppy slalom courses of orange cones. Around tables and chairs and garbage cans. Out the door, down the hall, and back in through the other entrance, yards ahead of a baffled but bemused Principal Buttars. They plowed through any course we and our teachers rigged up, grinning, sweating, gritting their teeth and leaning for the tape.
Now that three decades have elapsed, I can’t see this exhibition as anything but barbaric, a Romanesque perversion fit only for sleazy under-the-counter DVD sales. And yet, for us, the teachers, and for Kenny and Mike, it was the zenith of the day, a moment we all hungered for, when we could forget the weight of who we were.
The moment I won’t forget is the day Mrs. Turnipseed gave Mike Farnsworth “The Pig Award.” She announced it, a new policy, the week after we finished reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“Class,” she said, holding up a wooden pig. “This will go to the student with the messiest desk, until he or she cleans it up.” The pig award resembled a dime-store napkin holder. Creamy white hide with muddy spatters. Dumpy trotters nailed to a level foundation. A raspberry-mocha neckerchief strapped around chubby shoulders.
I don’t think Mrs. Turnipseed intended to give the award to anyone. My guess is she meant it as a symbolic threat, like a severed head on a pike over the entrance to London Bridge, a Damoclean reminder of the ignominy we would suffer if our crayons strayed from their boxes. But one day, on returning to our room from an exhilarating rout of parachute aerobics and wheeled-seat drag races, there it was on Mike Farnsworth’s desk.
“Mike,” she said. We slipped sidelong looks at the pig. “The pig will stay on your desk until you clean it out. It’s filthy.”
Even to the most buffalo-headed heathen in our class, the sentence felt far too severe. It was like caning someone for a parking ticket. We all thought the same thing: Wasn’t Mike handicapped? Wasn’t he entitled to some kind of free pass, given his challenges? It became clear that Mrs. Turnipseed didn’t think so.
“Mike,” she would say. “The pig award will stay there until you clean your desk.”
Each day, Mike gazed down and said nothing. His chin sagged. Like an incarcerated chimp, he lolled his head right and left, his marionette joints slung through invisible rope swings. Unable or unwilling to respond, he stared at the trove of trash avalanching from his desk—Harlem Globetrotter sweatbands, ossified baloney and cheese sandwiches in plastic baggies, balsa wood airplanes—and looked as if a lunar rover had spilled its guts in his lap.
Still the pig remained. And Mike’s desk stayed messy. After a week-long standoff, Mrs. Turnipseed delivered the ultimatum before afternoon recess.
“Mike,” she said. “Either you clean your desk, or I’m dumping it out.” Mike gave no reply, but hunched like a philosopher whose stubborn vow of silence had secured him a lifetime perch on a golden toadstool. With a huff, Mrs. Turnipseed charged through the aisles, lifted Mike’s desk, and shook a landslide of packrat’s junk over Mike’s lap and onto the floor.
A girl in the back whimpered. Someone sneezed. A purple Hot Wheels funny car skated across the floor and crashed into a chair leg. Mrs. Turnipseed returned to her desk and began calling names for spelling test scores.
“Cami?” she said.
“Hundred,” Cami said.
Dutifully, we sounded off with military sang-froid while firing snapshot glances at Mike. He slumped like a shock-therapy patient in a dumptruck load of crap—yo yo’s and orange peel and monkey sock puppets and tubes of Super Glue. His lip quivered. Mist smeared his glasses.
But he didn’t cry. Nobody cried. Nobody mentioned the incident again, and nobody earned “The Pig Award” after that day. Some despotic specter had been cleansed from Room Three. We’d all been asked to grow up, to smash our fairy tales across the marble altar of reality. My favorite teacher had become tarnished, not with evil or any kind of malice, but with a new kind of knowledge about people, a stubborn infection too microscopic to see, a slow-developing diagnosis that one day, I knew, would crawl under my skin.
The memory mite bores deep. Less than half a millimeter wide, it chews our grapefruit flesh and spits out the poisoned pulp, leaving behind the irritating s-shaped trails of ourselves, invisible to the unaided eye. In a trillion sweaty hives, it copulates blindly with machine-gun speed, a frisson of feral lust. Years go by before we realize we’re infected. For the rest of our lives, it is the itch we can never quite scratch.
Undetected, it wedges parcels of sticky eggs in places where we’re most susceptible. In hard-to-reach crevasses under the arms. Between fingers and toes. Around the genitals. Near the heart.
In a 1952 issue of The Scientific Monthly, a short editorial called “The Discovery of the Cause of the Itch” finds Dr. Reuben Friedman squaring off against a woman named Eileen Stewart. Apparently, Stewart’s dogmatic claims concerning sarcoptic mange left Friedman disgruntled enough to set the scabies record straight during the Eisenhower years.
Scabies was “discovered,” Friedman argues, not by Francesco Redi, as Stewart claims, but by a “twenty-four-year old physician Giovan Cosimo Bonomo, and his fifty-year-old friend Diacinto Cestoni, a naturalist and pharmacist.” It was Bonomo and Cestoni who communicated their discovery to Redi on July 18, 1687.
The discovery produced an illustrated pamphlet (always the terror of pamphlets!), with four figures drawn by an artist named Colonello. Shortly after, Bonomo’s holograph letter to Redi became lost, forgotten rather, in a library in Arezzo until 1925 when it was discovered by Professor Alberto Razzauti. Friedman adds that scabies was “re-discovered” in 1834 by a Corsican medical student, Simon Francois Renucci, in Professor Alibert’s clinic at the Hôpital St. Louis in Paris.
The problem with discovery is that there is no such thing. Re-discovery is our only option. Cycles of memory and awareness that find us shifting in our chairs and reaching to scratch new rashes that have been around for centuries.
Other sources confirm Friedman’s operatic narrative. An 1885 edition of The American Medical Journal mentions Cestoni and Colonello. Cestoni apparently helped “poor women” in using pinpoints to draw a dinky nit from the skin of their children, “an insect,” the journal records, “which they crushed between their nails with a slight noise.” Colonello then produced a drawing of the creature that squirted out oblong ova shaped “like the egg of a pigeon.” Though the AMJ omits the Colonello illustrations, it describes what Colonello saw: a teeny-weeny beastie “resembling a tortoise, of a whitish color, the back of a dusky hue, and furnished with a few very fine hairs.” In places, the article sounds like a paid advertisement for the Adopt-A-Parasite Miracle Network: “The little animal moves with great vivacity; it has six legs; the head is pointed, and armed with two small horns or antennae at the extremity of the mouth.” Here, icky tick! Here, boy!
Though the journal’s tone strikes twenty-first century readers as hoity-toity, it still provides a fascinating menu of historical cures, lest our third-graders appear in the milking barn with irritated scrota or inflamed armpits: “The old-time practice of bleeding under the arm and the external use of the blue mercurial ointment for the cure of the itch have passed into oblivion,” the journal assures us, listing more reliable treatments such as “cleansing with soap and water” (always a favorite), “oil of petroleum,” “glycerine,” a “nitro-muriatic acid bath,” “sublimated sulphur,” and “subcarbonate potash.”
Bonomo’s drawings are widely available and look somewhat harmless—more like gangly sea turtles or Rastafarian raspberries than like anything that could sink its toxic canines into your cerebellum and strip off your hide like fatback. A 1921 study in The Journal of Parasitology provides better visuals. These drawings came from mites found on “two cockerels” sent from La Trappe, Quebec, after the unfortunate fowls exhibited the following symptoms: “inability to eat owing to the eyelids being completely glued together; head held down in a rather pendulous state, the comb, wattles, eyelids and face being covered with dried exudates and epidermal crusts.”
Unlike the cheery pictures of Mr. Muppet Mite in the pamphlet I received in 1978, these images capture the truly grotesque nature of scabies. Werewolfish, pustular, they look like nothing from Nofrio the Innkeeper and everything like Nosferatu. A microscopic Argus Panoptes with gasoline breath and fifteen fish-hook tongues, farting dandruff and coughing arsenic, crawling on knifepoint across your epidermis like Alan Arkin toward Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark.
Look closely at these images, and you see the aborted, clubfooted fetuses resulting from a union between Igor and Witchypoo. Septic pincers squirm like short-circuited Doc Oc arms. Black cactus needles bristle from bloated joints. Both the male and female sketches for Sarcoptes scabiei writhe on the page like a valentine from hell, a marriage of monstrosity in miniature.
Are we who we are thanks to or in spite of the disability? Is it the disease that invigorates our steps? Health that cripples us?
Monday morning. Spring. A day to remember. Quack grass and dandelions surge from the kickball fields behind Jefferson Elementary. Dust devils pirouette across blacktop. Joe Snow, the janitor, bounces a rickety tractor and tank of sloshing weed killer around the grounds, spritzing sidewalk cracks. In Room Three, we busily assemble popsicle stick fortresses à la the Alamo. Principal Buttars knocks, enters, thumps to the front of the room, and stands next to a new boy who has trailed him in. Side by side, they resemble a sloth-like superhero and his enigmatic sidekick. Captain Alzheimer’s and Kid Albino.
“This is William,” Principal Buttars announces. “Please help Mrs. Turnipseed make him feel welcome.”
Mrs. Turnipseed smiles. William takes his seat in the center of the room. The reverential snickety-snick of popsicle sticks chips at the silence. We work without offering William a word. Dutifully, I glue sticks together. I glance at him. He sits without moving, a half-finished sculpture never reaching for sticks or glue. He wears an inky blue canvas jacket with a brass zipper. The collar is ribbed, like paper cupcake shells. His hair is white, a color that reminds me of polar bears. A plank of snowy hair shades his eyes, evidence that he hasn’t had a haircut in months. He wears glasses with thick black rims, and every so often he twitches his head and flips his shag-rug bangs from his eyes. In manner and appearance, he resembles a child of the Beat Generation, or the young people in documentaries about the Space Race and the Kent State riots.
The next day, a few students report that things have been stolen from their desks. Pencils, marbles, lunch money, pocket mirrors. A girl shows Mrs. Turnipseed that someone has filched her turquoise necklace from a small baggie and refilled the baggie with rocks. The spotlight of guilt swerves one place: William.
Wednesday morning, Mrs. Turnipseed asks William to step outside and stand in the hall. He stands and levitates out, stiff-backed, arms to his sides. Mrs. Turnipseed closes the door behind him.
“Principal Buttars has been informed of the thefts,” she says. “I want you to tell me if William steals anything. The principal has told me that we won’t tolerate thieves in our school.”
At recess, we watch him. The chaos of the playground swirls around the monolith of his figure. Four-square balls careen, jump ropes tangle, tetherballs flounce like spastic pendulums—and still, for the entire recess, he remains at the gravitational center of the playground, feet together, arms stretched in ghost manacles. Motionless. Icy. He stares at cracks in the asphalt that radiate from his Chuck Taylors, a stringy daisy of tar stretching its tentacle out to collect nobody but wintery William.
Now the thing I wish I didn’t remember goes like this: I am walking down the hallway to the office. I am slotting a nickel in the steel pencil dispenser bolted to the wall. I am turning the handle and retrieving two unsharpened No. 2 pencils. Without hesitation, I am walking down the hall and entering Room Three. A jumbled cornucopia of jackets hangs on a row of mounted hooks. Empty desks shine, each a glossy desert. A gallery of hand-drawn pictures of the Wright Brothers flutters over the open windows. I am gliding to my desk, passing Kenny’s desk, Mike Farnsworth’s desk, William’s desk. I am sitting and placing the pencils in the dugout tray in the surface of my desk, re-arranging my math folder, rubberbanding flashcards. Then I am standing, plucking the new pencils from the tray, walking to the boys’ restroom, snapping the pencils in half, and dropping them in the wastebasket. The recess bell clangs in my skull, and, at once, the noise nips my heels out of the restroom. I am rebounding off the shoulders of my classmates, who storm like marines through the doors, shouting about Jimmy Carter and spider’s eggs in Bubble Yum and steelies and clackers. As my friends assemble in their places, I am standing at Mrs. Turnipseed’s desk. She is facing me, eyes gentle, forehead ribbed with wrinkles of concentration.
“My pencils are missing,” I say.
Mrs. Turnipseed is narrowing her eyes. Her face relaxes. Her look dips to the floor, eyelids closing and opening once. Her eyes lift and connect with mine. She is pressing her lips together in a firm smile of tragic understanding.
“Okay. Thank you for telling me.”
The rest is lost to the pest of memory. Except for Friday. That day, Principal Buttars and another male teacher in a shoeshine-colored mustache and citrus paisley tie blunder in and yank William out of his desk. They jerk his arm so forcefully that his sheepdog’s hair flails like a flag of surrender.
Even as they cart him out, though, his expression remains neutral. Then a smile slices his frosty face, a joyful twitch of his lips. He is a political dissident facing liquidation with ice-water aplomb, a heretic rubbing Crisco on his skin as they drag him to the flaming stake.
I am thinking: If they could only figure out what’s wrong with him.
A Yiddish curse: “He should have Pharaoh’s curse sprinkled with Job’s scabies.”
About five years ago, my mother called me at work. I crooked the phone against my ear and looked out the window. A crow whetted its beak on the warty limbs of a poplar.
“Remember Mike Farnsworth?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“From what? Complications or—”
“They don’t know. Just gave up maybe.”
We talked about other things for a while, then I hung up the phone. I turned to the window and watched a biplane sink toward the country airport. I hadn’t seen Mike since high school, and even then, he’d never really mixed with the rest of us. In our teenage years, he’d remained in Special Education, at a separate table in the cafeteria, a spectral presence in the halls during the prom, football games, and science fairs. As he’d grown older, he’d drifted from his former self, no longer the garrulous third-grader popping random questions in order to get attention, but a wordless lurking wallflower, a rundown mechanical spider you were always encountering outside the locker room or auditorium. He’d reached his mid-thirties, as I had. But something had stopped his progress, whereas fate had determined I would continue inching toward destiny.
The summer following my mother’s phone call, I took my family to my parents’ house for a visit. Early the next morning, I left my wife and daughters sleeping and went for a jog around the square mile surrounding the house I’d called home through grade school, junior high, high school, and a smattering of vagrant days between college semesters.
The landscape had changed. The town government had unrolled an asphalt bike path that paralleled the old Bird Farm Road. New homes and churches and an emergency response station had sprouted in the miles of unbroken farmland that had swept south, toward the canyon, from the back porch of my childhood. Green alfalfa swayed in the wind. Elaborate arcs of water shot from wheeled sprinkler pipes. Meadowlarks porpoised through nets of airborne pollen.
At the halfway mark, I turned back and saw two gawky figures advancing toward me on the path. They swung their elbows and knees like a vaudeville duo in a feisty soft-shoe. As I got closer, I nearly stumbled to my knees. It was Mrs. Turnipseed and her husband, race-walking at a speed that would have qualified them for the grand nationals. Three decades hadn’t changed her at all, with one exception. A nuclear storm had blown the crow’s-wing black from her hair and dusted her head with ash.
I prepared to re-introduce myself but didn’t have to.
“Matthew!” she called, grinning and striding up to me. She and her husband were wearing cross-trainers, white ankle socks, Spandex jogging tights, and loose T-shirts. Though we were both sweaty, we hugged and stepped back.
“How’s teaching?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” she laughed. She looked at me sideways as if I were being facetious. “Retired, retired. I just re-certified, though. In reading.”
She inquired about the usual things: work, family, children. I asked about her son, who had been a friend of mine. As we chatted, I was unable to account for a triphammer of anxiety cocked in my chest, a swelling question mark crested with a froth of nostalgia. Outwardly, I flashed a palette of casual smiles. Inside, a squadron of tiny bugs paratrooped through my veins, racing down my tendons on razor ice-skates, jamming pitchforks in the breaker box of my cerebral cortex. Before I could decode my feelings, the small talk abated, and we parted.
“Nice to see you,” I said, fumbling for something grander.
I thought: Do you remember Mike Farnsworth? His desk, the pig award?
“I need to meet that great family of yours,” she said, sweeping hair from her forehead.
I thought: There was this William boy. Remember? I never told you.
“I’ll be in touch,” I said.
I thought: Why did we . . . ?
“Goody, take care!” she called waving, speeding past the Lighthouse Assembly’s weathered fence.
I waggled a wave over my shoulder and started back. Halfway down the Bird Farm Road, the truth of my feelings emerged, raw but cleaned, like an animal skeleton in the sun. Without knowing it—in a way I still don’t understand—I had waited almost thirty years, foolishly, for my third-grade teacher to explain the complexities of life, to unroll and explicate the grand blueprint that maps the architecture of all human failing. In one chance meeting, I had expected Mrs. Turnipseed to give me the answers to the lifetime of stored confusion I had carried like an infection, for her to teach me the truths about people I should have already taught myself.
Here’s what I want to remember: I am jogging down a country road to the house in which I was raised. I am balancing two images of Mrs. Turnipseed in my mind, one with a clown’s wig of dense black hair as fantastic as a storm cloud, the other wearing a conservative cropped mop sugared with age. Sprinkler rigs on monstrous tires shower the alfalfa, which is green and plush and grooved in the wind. I am racing the experience of learning, running down the faulty road of memory and adulthood into the classroom of final answers.
On arriving, I join a game in progress. My hands tug the taut edge of a parachute, a silk patchwork of all the world’s handicaps, which will save me if I don’t let go, if I don’t let it slow my descent. In a cafeteria that serves reheated pain and exhaustion, I am laughing with my friends, shrieking and shaking the fabric with violent joy. A four-square ball bounces dangerously close to our side. Impromptu allies, lifelong enemies, we shake the parachute, and the ball bounds away. With the strength of a hundred third-graders, I cast the parachute skyward, its canopy mushrooming with air. I am pulling the billowing shroud over my head, jumping to a sitting position inside, quieting my giggles as I smile and examine the hodge-podge horizon of kids on the other side. I stare at the faces, the slaphappy grins, a mirror taxonomy of ideal infirmities whose circle includes me. The veil drifts down over our heads. For as long as we can, we gaze at one another, each small person as perfectly malformed as the next.
August 1978. My mother ushers me toward a bunker of creamy orange bricks. A threadbare American flag slaps the parched sky, its fabric pocked with lesions of light. A loose clasp pings against the flagpole. Near the front doors, a swoop of red construction-paper letters stretches a message across five windows. I read it. I blink, skipping a step in my stride. Somehow, the prefix “Un” has vanished and left the rest of the word—“Welcome!”—to make want to me turn and run.
“Excited?” my mom asks.
At the entrance, we halt. A vision stares back from wavy shatterproof glass: my mother, holding my hand; my frazzled “bowl cut” hairstyle; my Green Bay Packers pullover and ruby Toughskin jeans from King’s Department Store. The flaky tang of hay and manure taints the air. All around, a checkerboard rug of fields, cows, and highways sprawls toward infinity, its fringes tucked under the volcanic edges of the earth. Somewhere in the middle of this rural nowhere—Jerome, Idaho, population 3,000—I am doing the last thing I want to be doing.
Only one thing can save me. If, for my teacher, I get Mrs. Turnipseed.
We push through heavy metal doors into an air-conditioned hallway. The waxed floor glows like a river of solar flares. We don’t plunge through the surface but, like miracle workers, glide across the current past a shrine of presidential portraits. Outside the main office, a janitor joins our anti-gravity feat. He stands in clunky boots and polishes his glasses with a stringy purple rag. His hand releases the glasses, makes a gun shape, and shoots a soundless bullet down the hallway.
We pass a gallery of open doors. Each one bears a cartoon creature: google-eyed frog, Can-Canning cupcake, monkey in overalls. Through one door, I glimpse a bubbling aquarium of angel fish. In another, a white hamster gallops inside a spinning wheel. I’m thinking: I have to get Mrs. Turnipseed! How do I get Mrs. Turnipseed? What if I don’t get Mrs. Turnipseed! The spiel from the town’s reputation factory rambles through my head: Mrs. Turnipseed spins every subject into game; she’s the most hilarious person on the planet. In my superstitious heart I’ve been paying the local rainmaker triple overtime—pleading, cutting deals with heaven, clenching my teeth and praying—for fortune to hook me up with the “fun teacher.” In moments, I will learn if fortune will smile or snicker at my devotions.
My mother and I approach the registration table like lovers about to leap from a bridge. A stumpy spectacled lady in a carnation blouse pulls a file card from a creaky metal box.
“Mrs. Turnipseed,” she says. “Room Three.”
“Well, hoo-ray,” my mom says.
I swoon. Saved! A bolt of electric sugar rockets through my spine. I grin like a lockjaw victim as my mother escorts me down the hall to third-grade nirvana.
Outside Room Three, we pause. The door stands ajar. A Peanuts poster covers the bubble-glass window. Lucy perches behind her roadside booth, and Charlie Brown, a simper of despondence scribbled across his face, slumps on a stool to receive her prefab recipe for happiness.
“Hello!” my mom calls.
I peek in. Mrs. Turnipseed sits at her desk. She’s writing something that I imagine to be nothing less than the peppermint-sprinkled, lightning-charged sequel to The Magical Mystery Tour. She wears a polyester, flare-legged pant suit, a butterscotch pattern of rocket-powered books and big-handed palm trees and jitterbugging cuckoo clocks. A translucent gold scarf binds her unruly licorice hair. She sees us and rises—a heron ambling up a staircase of sky and unfolding into flight—and clonks across the floor on royal blue heels, cherry lipstick blazing.
“This is Matthew,” my mother says, nudging me forward.
“Matthew!” Mrs. Turnipseed booms, guiding me inside. “I’m all ready for you. Here’s your desk. We’re going to learn a lot this year!”
The study continues. In one journal, a trapper from Vancouver sends a damaged marten pelt to the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia. Evidence suggests the marten has savaged its own hide, sheared off its skin with claws and teeth, trying to rid itself of an unseen invader. In another, mites are found on only those Rocky Mountain elk that register the greatest antler span, scrotum circumference, and body mass.
Has the disease forced the elk to grow stronger? Or were they simply virile enough to withstand nature’s routine prescription of weakness?
No journal contains what I never told Mrs. Turnipseed. After she dumped out Mike Farnsworth’s desk, I saw him walk. I was in the boys’ restroom, alone, standing at a urinal when I heard him and turned.
Without a word, he peeked around the corner, flung his crutches aside, and with his arms extended like a withered tightrope artist, walked—unsteadily, yes; on the floppy sides of his scruffy feet, yes; on legs as warped as pipe cleaners, yes—but walked from one side of the room to the other like a man raised from the bed of sickness that had claimed him for thirty years.