A memoir by Lana Ayers
There was this boy in second grade, taller by a foot than the next tallest of us. He walked bent over like an old person. Probably to be closer to our heights. He had wavy brown hair that matted down and jutted out oddly and differently every day. His clothes were rumpled like he’d slept in them. He sat in the row next to mine, one seat ahead. Sometimes I couldn’t see the blackboard, being the shortest one in my second-grade class. I’d lean forward, pat his shoulder, ask him to scoot down for a moment. He always startled with a lurch, but duck down for way too long. Which I thought was kind.
At lunch, no one would sit with him. Maybe because he drooled and his teeth had a greenish hue like they were made of iceberg lettuce. Girls sat with girls back then, and boys with boys. So, I couldn’t do anything about him being shunned. Or, at least, that’s what I told myself.
When we’d pass each other in the hall, or filing up to hand in work at our teacher Mrs. Williams’ desk, I’d catch a whiff of something unpleasant. Not sweat, or pee, or poo. Nothing I could name exactly. Maybe like the way the air smelled the first warm hour after rain—like wet earth or worms. Something like that.
One day, the boy started shuddering and his tongue rolled out of his mouth. He grunted and fell off his desk chair onto the floor, thumping his head hard. Some of the girls screamed. The boys stood up and pointed and laughed. Holy moly, one said. Some kids looked away. I kept watching.
Mrs. Williams rushed over, thrust her spare sweater under his head and grabbed onto his tongue. She yelled for Johnny Willis to go to the office and tell them to call an ambulance and the boy’s parents. The boy’s eyes rolled back in his head but twitched a lot. The way my dog’s eyes did sometimes when he was asleep. The earthworm smell got stronger.
I can’t remember the order of everything that happened next. We were made to stand out in the hall. Two people in uniforms showed up with a rolling cot. The boy was wheeled out. The rest of the day we read quietly at our desks from the classroom library or were allowed to color.
The next day the boy was absent. And the day after that. And the following week. He never came back and I wondered if he had died. It took me tow weeks to work up the courage to ask Mrs. Williams where he was. She said he was in a special school for special kids like him. I wondered what that meant and wanted to ask, but Mrs. Williams shushed me and told me to go back to my reading.
I thought the boy was like the rest of us. Mrs. Williams had said special like it was a bad thing.
I was a shy kid and not well-liked because I was fat and darker skinned with weird hair. Every other child steered clear of me as they had done with the boy. Maybe I was special too in that bad way. No maybe about it.
But the boy had it tougher than most. Tougher than me. I think of him often, after rain when it’s still damp and musty. I’ve always loved earthworms, how they contract and expand and get exactly where they need to go.
Lana Ayers, night-owl, coffee-enthusiast, MFA, has authored nine poetry collections and a time travel novel. She lives on the Oregon coast where she enjoys the near-constant plunk of rain on the roof and the sea’s steady whoosh. Lana leads workshops in Tillamook, a town of more cows than humans.