Though names have been changed to protect the guilty…
Amelia Harkins was the first person in Saranac Lake to talk to me.
I had just arrived, was starting school in the middle of the year; between my “fancy Massatusets accent” and my oversized presence, I was not someone the other kids wanted any part of. Newcomers were rare in that world behind the granite walls of the Adirondack Mountains, and Miss Premo, our teacher, didn’t help.
My mother hadn’t walked me in to class that first day. She had to accompany my brother to the kindergarten, and our little sister was cranky, so she just nodded toward the classroom at the top of the stairs and left me to enter my classroom ten minutes after the starting bell had rung, and Ms. Premo was visibly irritated.
“Yes?” She peered down at me from atop a ladder, where she was perched, adjusting the window shade. The boys in the class were getting a kick out of staring up at her grandmother-style boxer shorts, but she didn’t seem to notice, as she stared venom down at me. “What is your business here?” she barked.
“I’m starting here today,” I stammered. “I, I, . . . ”
“Where are you from, girl?”
“Longmeadow. That’s in –”
“Doesn’t matter where or what it’s in, now does it. It isn’t here. Did you bring your school records?”
“I have them here, ma’am.”
The class was breathless with anticipation as she struggled down the ladder and came to stand in front of me. I was a good foot taller than she, and the bun in her white hair was askew, telegraphing wiry wisps around her face. I noticed her shoes, mostly because I was afraid to look up; they were the brown oxford style that nuns wore in the movies, and they looked to be two different sizes. I continued to look downward and thrust the papers I was carrying out in front of me, and I muttered, “My teacher in Longmeadow Miss Smith said to tell you –”
“Never mind. I don’t need another teacher to tell me anything. I can read.”
She looked up at me, assessing my presence. I was wearing a pink dress my mother had made for me; it had a lace front and decorative buttons along the top, and it was the prettiest thing I owned. “Do you always dress like that?” Miss Premo asked. I didn’t understand the question and certainly didn’t know how to answer.
“Never mind. Can you sing?” Out of the blue, Miss Premo sat at the piano at the front of the classroom.
Despite the non sequitur nature of this query, I was prepared to reply.
“Oh, yes, ma’am. I sang solo in the Trinity Choir, and in my school, I was –”
She plunked a tune on the ivories. “Sing that back to me.”
I did. “You can’t carry a tune, miss. I don’t know what you got away with in Longmeadow, but you won’t be singing in my classroom. Sit there.” She pointed to the very back of the room. “You’ll be out of the way.”
I slunk to the designated desk, grateful to be out of the limelight, hoping the teacher would just get on with her classroom routine and forget about me.
“I don’t have any books for you just yet, miss,” the teacher said. “You’ll have to just follow along as best as you can for now. After lunch, we’ll settle your materials. By then I’ll have time to look over your records, and I can assess where you’re best suited to be in our reading, spelling and math groups.”
I knew I shouldn’t say anything. But I had never been good at holding my tongue. “In Longmeadow, I went to accelerated reading, I was in the 6th grade speller and –”
“No high and mighty people in my classroom miss. You’ll be where I put you. “ And then, as I sighed a genuine thank you to the lord I still believed in, she turned her attention to the class and left me alone, book-less, paperless, pencil-less in my corner for the rest of the morning.
Since I had no work to do, I was free to watch what I felt like watching, to daydream or to just let my mind wander at will. At first I was entranced by the snow falling outside our window. I had never seen as much snow as was already on the ground, and I didn’t know the world could be as cold as the morning felt inside my mother’s car, but even so, the snow kept falling, swirling, falling, and the gray air remained misty, as the barren trees swayed in the wind. After a while, though, even the snow was boring, so I turned my attention to the classroom.
The other kids looked pretty much like the kids in my old classroom. I was used to making the adjustment to being new – I was just nine, in fourth grade, and this was my fifth school. My father suffered a strange kind of wanderlust, and he had moved us eleven times since I was born. I knew the kids would think I was weird, and I also knew that I’d find a friend or two eventually, and I didn’t need any more than that.
The classroom was standard too. Letters across the top of the green blackboards that circumscribed the room, musical notes and clef signs on music paper hung on the walls around the piano, which was at the front left corner of the room. The teacher’s desk was in the center of the front of the room, large, propped on a pedestal, poised to impose order even when the teacher was sitting. And the pupil desks, with their built-in cubbies, stood in tidy rows, rigid and uniformly uncomfortable. Each row of desks had an empty one at the very back except the row that I was in; I was the only person sitting at the end of a row.
What was not like any classroom I had ever seen before was that there was, in the front right of the classroom, a special section with another desk, sequestered entirely from the rest of us. In that desk sat a little girl. Actually, I wasn’t sure at first she was a little girl. Because she was unlike any child I had ever seen before.
She sat silently, possibly reading along with the lesson or possibly doing something altogether different; no one seemed to care, least of all the teacher. But she had her back to the rest of us, her desk turned toward the corner. In the Struwelpeter book my grandmother liked to read us, there was a picture of the Struwelpeter facing the wall with a dunce cap on his head; he had been placed there because he was stupid. This person wore no dunce cap, but she was clearly being punished. And when she suddenly, unexpectedly raised her hand, I could see what her crime was.
Her hand had no fingers. At first, when it went into the air, I thought she was making a fist, but then I realized that where there should have been fingers, there were fused, indistinct extensions of hand with only one rather sloppy separation at the center of it, almost as though her hand were a cloven foot.
“What do you want, Amelia?” Miss Premo could hardly ignore her all day though she let the girl keep her hand up for a very long time without acknowledgement.
“I have to go to the john.”
“Ask me correctly, Amelia.”
“May I please be excused to go to the john?”
“To the what, Amelia?”
“The john, Miss –”
“I have told you time and again, Amelia. It is the girls’ room.”
“May I please go to the girls’ room?”
“You may. In half an hour. It will be lunch time then, and you will just have to hold it till then.”
“But, Miss –”
“I have spoken.”
The teacher went on with her lesson. Amelia squirmed in her seat, but she stayed put. Before long, I noticed a stream of water flowing from under her seat, and it formed a puddle near the front of Miss Premo’s desk.
“Ooooh. It stinks in here,” said another girl. “Amelia peed.”
Miss Premo descended from her throne and grabbed the pointer with the chalk holder that she used to indicate the letters over the blackboard, and she hit Amelia across the back with it. “Get up, Amelia. Get up and take yourself to the principal’s office.”
Amelia stood, and I saw clearly why she was the subject of such abuse. She was head-to-foot an aberration: extremely small, misshapen and bent with bowed legs and a large hump protruding from her backbone. Both her hands were like the one that was raised, and her right arm was jagged, permanently bent, like a tree limb that had been blown sideways in a storm, its fracture frozen. Square-shaped and flat, her head tilted so that her hollow eyes hollow looked at you sideways, across her concave nose. When she spoke, Amelia mumbled because her lips were curled under, the way my grandmother’s did when I startled her without her teeth in.
Amelia didn’t argue or complain. She walked to the door, her shoes making the squish of a wet sponge, and she left. The principal brought her back to the classroom after lunch and left her for Miss Premo to eye her carefully till she was satisfied that Amelia had cleaned up enough to be allowed back into her corner at the front of the room.
That night, I tried to tell my mother about my day, but all I could manage was that I hated my new school. Knowing how reluctant I’d been to leave Longmeadow, how bereft I was at the loss of my close friend Barbara, how very much I had adored my teacher in my last school, she expected me to grouse and made light of it. What I really wanted to tell her was how abused Amelia was, how angry it made me that we all just sat there and let the wicked crone treat a child the way she did, but I couldn’t.
I knew in my heart that I was guilty too. I had been relieved when Premo’s attention turned to Amelia. In other times and other circumstances, I had already established a reputation for myself as a fearless child who brooked no injustice. When my brother was maltreated on the playground his first day of school last fall, I challenged the Miss Smith, principal, citing her arbitrary, unmotivated mistreatment of a kindergartner. She relented and, in fact, turned out to be the best teacher I ever had. Another time, when my neighbor Kenny was crying because his brother was lost in Korea, I defended his honor against a gaggle of bullies and actually punched the leader’s nose so hard it bled for an hour. But for Amelia, none of that righteous anger raised its impetuous head; I let Premo treat her whatever way she wanted to, and, worse, I was aware that I would go on doing so. After all, Amelia was hideous. Her role on this earth was to absorb the tension from my adjustment period.
The next day was pretty much just like the first. We had chorus class, and Miss Premo would not let me sing. “I told you, you can’t carry a tune,” she shouted at me. “You’ll ruin the song for all of us.” I stood quietly, determined not to cry. During spelling, she gave me the third grade speller. I could no longer hold back. “But I finished the fourth grade speller when I was in third grade, and Miss Smith had me in the s—”
“We do things differently in New York State, young lady,” she squawked. “And in this classroom, you do things my way.”
By lunchtime, I was ready to disintegrate. In the lunchroom, I sat alone. The other kids shunned me. For this I was grateful. The effort to be social was way beyond my ken at that moment; I was happy to spend my lunchtime buried in a book – I was into reading biographies at that point, which licensed me to have lunch this day with Helen Keller. Suddenly, sensing rather than seeing a presence at my elbow, I looked up from my book and, to my shocked dismay, smack into the flattened visage of Amelia Harkins.
She smelled. Of what I couldn’t tell, but it was a terrible smell. Something like the fluid my dad used for his cigarette lighter, but far worse. She stood there for a moment not saying anything, just balancing her tray on her fingerless hands at the end of her twisted arms. Her dirty coveralls were drooping over her pinched little body, and the pant legs were rolled up so many times they made a thick pad between her legs.
“I gotta sit here,” she said. “Nobody ‘ll let me sit at their table, so I got nowheres else to go.”
“You stink,” I blurted, aware of how horrible it was that I did and unable to control myself.
“I know.” She was so matter of fact I figured she had chosen the odor as a perfume. “Kerosene.”
“The oil my dad makes me fill the heaters with in the morning so’s the kids can get out of bed. I spill it because my hands –”
“My brothers and sisters. I’m the oldest. I got –”
“I’m the oldest too. My mother’s pregnant, so soon –”
“Really? Jesum crow. So’s my mom.”
She sat, and I went back to my book. I didn’t want the other kids to think I was befriending her. She ate her lunch. I ignored her. The smell abated.
Over the course of the next several weeks, Amelia and I became lunch mates. In class, four of the boys absorbed some of the horror. Ronnie Spivak and his twin Donnie, who looked nothing alike, got in trouble for being late, and she harassed them for a full day, letting both Amelia and me be. Kerry Hirt grabbed an eraser from the blackboard when she wasn’t looking and threw it at Dickie Steinberg. She took them out into the hall and hit them with her pointing stick. Molly McDonough, the very model of perfect behavior, dropped her reading book, and Premo was so enraged her eyes exploded, and she shook her fists in a rampage so terrifying that Molly walked out the door and ran away home.
At lunch, I didn’t mind sitting with Amelia. I had got used to her smell, to the charcoal dust that clung to her like someone’s pet monkey in a silent film. She had more siblings than I had, and I had plenty; she had more chores than I did, and I had too many. Her suffering was clearly greater than mine. One time Amelia invited me to her house, and I declined; how could I accept? She never invited me again. We understood that what we shared at the lunch table was going nowhere else, but I know that we both looked forward to that lunchtime respite from utter aloneness, and we probably would have been disappointed to have anyone additional join us.
One day Amelia didn’t come to school. That surprised me because she was always there, even when she was sick, because, she said, being home was worse than being with Miss Premo. A few days later, she was back, her arm in a sling, her face badly bruised. People whispered: “Her father beats her.” Over the course of the school year, Amelia was often absent from then on; she would return with burn scars, a cast on her leg, her hair cut at a strange angle. When she stopped coming to school altogether, I wondered if her father had killed her.
I got used to life without Amelia in school. The other kids began to approach me. I had a fight on the railroad tracks with Irene Halstead on our way home from school one afternoon, and after that we were best friends. Molly McDonough, who was even nicer than she was polite, invited me to a birthday party, and even Sherrie Hawkes, the popular kid, walked home with me from Brownies. I didn’t miss Amelia.
Then one day I saw her walking on River Street. Actually, she saw me and began to scream and wave. “Carla, hello, Carla. Over here. It’s Amelia.” I could not avoid her, and I had no excuse anyway. I crossed the street and said hello.
“Where ya been?” I asked.
“My mom needed me to take care of the kids, and I’m old enough to drop out so —”
“I thought you had to be 14 to do that,” I marveled.
“I’m 15,” Amelia asserted. “An’ I had all the school I need.”
I nodded, not knowing what to say. I was too forthright to make up a fast lie to make her feel good. I could have said, “We miss you, Amelia,” but that would have been ridiculous. I had no interest in pretending to care about her. So we just stood there, shifting from foot to foot, no commonalities to bind us. Finally, I said, “I gotta go. My mother told me I have to – ”
“Me too,” Amelia sighed. And she turned and walked back the way she’d come.
I didn’t watch her disappear up the slight hill toward Pine Street. Just shrugged her off and went on my way.
Years later I heard she died in a fire. Or her brother killed her. Or she ran away. Or her father got her pregnant, and she died in childbirth. No one knew what happened to Amelia.
That’s a lie. I knew. We killed her. All of us. But especially me.
Carla Stockton is a First Year MFA Candidate in Columbia University’s School of the Arts Writing Program.
Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels, www.ebbartels.com.