“Are we ready? Okay, let’s begin.” Miss Grant lifted the arm and placed the needle on the record.
A freshly mimeographed worksheet, the page still damp and smelling of purple ink, was in front of me. My pencil ready, the song began. I filled in the lyrics as I listened, “Leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again…” and when I finished I watched Miss Grant walk softly around the room. She wore her usual dark pants with a sharp crease, a short-sleeve blouse, and a cardigan over her shoulders. With her elbows and toes sticking out, she was like a bird walking in fifth position.
“Sara, will you please pass out the next song?” Miss Grant asked me.
I took the stack of papers and walked down the rows, placing a sheet on the edge of each desk. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone—especially the boys who pushed the paper off their desk, groaning as they leaned over to pick it up off the floor. They did the same thing every time I passed out papers, and every time I ignored them. I even ignored the quiet ones who reached for the paper with their fingertips and silently slid it in front of them.
When class was over and the bell rang, I went to get my jacket for recess.
“Sara, could you bring these folders to Mrs. Johnson on your way out?”
“Mm-hm.” I didn’t mind doing errands like this, especially just before recess. I actually spent almost as much time in the office as I did in the classroom. When I finished the spelling and the vocab books earlier in the year, Miss Grant got in the habit of asking me to go to the office for her when the rest of the class was doing English. And after I took some kind of math test, they gave me the fourth grade workbook to do, which gave me lots of extra time during math class to return books to the library or do things for the secretary in the office.
I left the classroom, turning against the tide of kids moving toward the doors to the playground. In the office I slid past a mother talking with the nurse and went behind the counter. Mrs. Johnson, the secretary, was sitting at her desk typing.
I held up the folders for her to see and put them on the counter.
She nodded. “Thank you.”
I looked around the office, disappointed there weren’t papers to be put into the teachers’ cubbies or an A/V cart to be brought back to the library. I noticed Mrs. Johnson looking at me, so I took the pencils from the cup on the counter. There were always a few that could use sharpening.
“Sara, you don’t have to do that right now. Why don’t you head outside for recess?” She looked at me with her hands suspended over her typewriter.
I nodded and put the pencils back, walking as slowly as I could down the long hallway to the back of the school. I hoped the door would be locked, but of course it opened when I pushed on it. I stood next to the water fountain, a good spot to watch what was going on but where no one would think I was waiting in line for the slide.
“Oh, yes, definitely…” I overheard Debbie say to Jody and Susan as they passed by. They leaned close to each other as they walked, and for a moment they paused near me. Then one of them whispered something and they moved away. After recess I stopped at the bathroom and found the three of them again standing in a tight group. They looked at me and continued talking in half-whispers when I went into a stall. When I came out they turned to watch me wash my hands.
“You haven’t seen it yet, have you?” Jody asked. She looked at me seriously.
“Uh…no, I don’t think so.”
“Oh, you will. All the moms are passing the book around.” She nodded. “But anyway, I already knew a lot of it…”
“I didn’t,” Debbie interrupted.
Jody looked at her with disgust. “Anyway, the main thing is that if a boy puts his,” holding up her pointer finger, “up here,” poking it under her skirt, “you make a baby.”
I waited for Susan or Debbie to laugh or to tell her to shut up. But they both stared at me earnestly.
“Huh,” I answered, grateful that the bell began to ring. Walking to the classroom, I hoped that my response came across the right way, so they’d know I knew what they were talking about. And that I knew it was a joke—because it must be, right?
* * *
The following afternoon, just after three o’clock, my mother told us to go outside to wait for our ride to CCD. Mrs. Duprey never got there before 3:15 when it was her turn to drive but I didn’t say anything. The good thing about the weeks that Debbie’s mom drove was that we always got there late. I sat at our picnic table and watched Shane ride his bike on the “route” he’d made—down the driveway, behind the wood pile, and through a puddle. You’d think it was the most exciting thing in the world the way he yelled non-stop.
But what I was thinking about was the book, although it wasn’t really even a book, more like a pamphlet. I spotted it yesterday under the mail in the kitchen, and when my mother took Shane to baseball, I read it, hurrying to put it back before she got home. Even though I rushed through it, I clearly remembered what it said about monthly bleeding and eggs and “sexual intercourse.” Since then I’d thought of little else, my thoughts swinging between relief and horror. Relief that I knew what they’d been talking about, and that I didn’t have to worry about a boy’s finger going under the hem of my skirt. But the horror loomed even larger—the unbelievability of it all. I couldn’t decide what was worse: that women bleed every month and men stick their penises into them, or that everyone walks around pretending it doesn’t happen.
When Debbie’s mom finally arrived, Shane ditched his bike and ran past me. He opened the car door and dove over the seat into the back of the station wagon.
“Hi, Sara,” Debbie said, smiling as I slid into the backseat.
“Hi,” I answered. Things were different when we weren’t in school.
“My mom said I could go to the mall this weekend, and I’m gonna get a new poster at Spencer’s.”
“Cool,” I answered, wondering what else I should say. We stopped at the end of our street to pick up the three Minett boys and the car was full. The boys were so loud, with Debbie’s brother, Jeff, hollering from the front to the boys in the way back, I gave up the idea of trying to talk. I wondered how long it would be before Debbie’s mother yelled at everyone to be quiet, but instead she reached to turn the radio up louder and pushed in the cigarette lighter.
Sister Marie looked at us angrily when we walked in and gave us coloring sheets with a picture of Jesus on the cross. I knew we were late and she was probably mad, but then again, she always looked that way. Apparently we’d already missed the day’s discussion so we colored in silence. Half-heartedly coloring the grass lime green, I watched Sister Marie as she walked back and forth at the front of the room. I couldn’t quite figure out CCD. It was boring, like school, but they didn’t even really try to teach us anything. Yet everyone was certain it was important for us to be there every week.
Watching Sister Marie glare at the air above our heads, as if she could see our bad thoughts hovering above us, I thought about Miss Grant. Every week when she turned on the record player and adjusted the volume, she’d carefully turn the knobs with her thumb and finger. It always seemed to me that she adjusted them like a nun. Not that I’d even seen a nun use a record player, but there was something calm and gentle in the way she touched the knobs that seemed very nun-like. Of course Sister Marie wasn’t calm or gentle, so I knew it didn’t really make sense.
It was dark when we all came out of the church basement, noisily spreading out in the parking lot. Mrs. Duprey’s station wagon was on the far side, and she was smoking with her arm held out the window. As we climbed into the car, she took one more puff and tossed the cigarette into the parking lot.
“All in?” she called as kids crawled over seats and the doors were slammed shut.
“How was it?” she asked as she backed out.
“Fantastic, Mom, as always,” Debbie answered sarcastically.
“Great, I’m so glad to hear that.” Debbie’s family did a lot of sarcasm.
On the way home I thought about the book and wished I could say to Debbie—without anyone hearing—what did you think about it? Do you think it’s really true? But watching Debbie stare out the window, I knew I could never say such a thing—not now, not ever.
Dropping us off in reverse order, Mrs. Duprey pulled up in front of the Minetts’ and the back and side doors swung open. I could see her tapping her fingers on the wheel.
“Okay then, bye,” she called out.
Joey, the oldest one, climbed out, followed by Griffin, who was in kindergarten.
“Uh, Mrs. Duprey,” Joey said.
“What do you mean, ‘Where’s Billy?’ Billy, are you back there?” she hollered into the back of the car.
We all just looked at her. “He’s not back here,” Jeff said.
“Jesus H. Christ.”
Shane and I got out of the car after Mrs. Duprey did. Shane ran toward home and I knew he couldn’t wait to break the news about Billy. I also headed home, not wanting to be there when Debbie’s mom and her “Jesus H. Christ” knocked on the door to tell Mrs. Minett that she’d lost her middle son.
My mom was already dialing the phone when I came in. She listened for a moment and then hung up.
“What’s going on?” she asked, and I wondered for a moment if she thought it was somehow my fault that Billy was missing.
“Uh…I don’t know.”
“Who’s going to look for him?”
“I’m not sure…”
“The Minetts’ line is busy, I’m going over there.”
“Okay, what should we…”
“You two don’t do anything. Just stay put, do you understand?”
She left without waiting for an answer.
After a minute I went outside by the driveway. I looked down the street toward the Minetts’, but there was no sign of my mother.
“What are you doing?” Shane asked after following me outside.
I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t answer.
Then I could see my mother hurrying back, half-running and half-walking in an embarrassing mom way. She was breathing heavily as she came up the driveway.
“Grab my pocketbook,” she called to me.
She was waiting in the car when I came back out, and Shane and I got in. The car bounced wildly as she drove over the bump at the end of the driveway, the one she was usually so careful to gently ease over. Driving to the church, her impatience showed in the way she accelerated quickly after every light, even though, with all the traffic, it didn’t really make a difference. I watched her drive and imagined her telling me that the things in the book weren’t real, that none of it was true. But I wondered, what if it was true? What other secrets of the world was she hiding from me?
I expected that Billy would be sitting outside the church when we pulled in, but the stone steps were empty. My mother went into the rectory and stayed inside for a few minutes. She came back out and started the car.
“Well?” I asked.
“Well what?” She looked at me as if she was surprised to see me there.
“What about Billy?”
“He’s not there. I’m going to go back home, and they’re going to call the police.”
“The police!” Shane said, leaning eagerly over the front seat. “Is he going to get arrested?”
“What? No, they’re going to help look for him.”
On the drive back home, we were all quiet, although I wanted to ask my mother where she thought Billy was. Was Sister Marie out searching for him too? Picturing her marching angrily down the sidewalk, I hoped for Billy’s sake that she wasn’t told he was missing.
It started to rain lightly, and I noticed my mother sigh when she turned on the wipers. I thought about the booklet and wondered when—if—my mother was going to say something to me about it. Did Miss Grant know all about everything in the book? Did Sister Marie? They must—every grown-up must. But what about fathers? Did they know everything about it too?
I considered this stunning possibility all the way home. It was only when we turned back into our neighborhood that I remembered about Billy. We turned onto our street and stopped in front of the Minetts’ house. A police car had just pulled up, and Billy was getting out of the backseat. His mother ran to him and hugged him like he’d been gone for years.
“Oh, thank God!” my mother said as she parked the car.
We all got out and approached the group on the lawn. Mrs. Duprey was there and she looked like she was going to cry.
“So you just started walking home?” Billy’s mother half-shouted, half-laughed, holding onto his shoulders.
My mother gave her a quick hug. “Thank you, thank you,” Mrs. Minett kept saying to everyone.
“Talk to you later,” my mother called out, heading back to the car. She reached to put her arm around me. “Sara, after dinner there’s something I want to talk with you about.”
“Okay,” I answered. A little sad—but not really surprised—because now there would be no way to go back to not knowing.