Mrs. Quigley waddled in just as the school bell rang. My teeth hurt. I don’t know if it was the bell or the waddle. But something was different that morning. Looking around the room, something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t identify it. Then Mrs. Quigley explained.
“Children, Billy Almquist will be absent from school for a while. He will be keeping up with his schoolwork from home and attending class through this special electronic intercom system.” She pointed to a gray box about the size of a toaster, sitting on a desk in the front row. She paused while the rest of us tried to figure out what she was talking about. “Say good morning to the class, Billy.”
A tiny, tinny voice sounded through the little box. “Good morning.”
Wiggly Quigley then turned to us and said, “Say good morning to Billy, class.” We all dutifully but tentatively chanted good morning to the invisible boy.
As I sat there that morning, I felt terrible because I couldn’t remember what Billy Almquist looked like. Based on my last name, I sat in the last row on the far left side of the room. Billy’s desk and the speaker that stood in for him were in the front row on the far right. It’s strange that you can look at a group of objects for a long time and think you know them all. Then one of those objects—in this case a boy—disappears and it’s as if it never existed. That’s how it was with Billy. It almost didn’t matter that he’d been replaced by a box. I remembered he was small and quiet, but for the life of me, I couldn’t picture his face.
I felt wicked bad.
For the rest of the day, I stared at that box trying to conjure up an image of Billy, but it wouldn’t come to me. He was just a box now, not a boy. My inattention in class wasn’t unusual. Mrs. Quigley never called on me because I never knew the answers. It’s to her credit, I suppose, that she had it in her power to embarrass me at will and she never did. My failures were known only to her, me, and (once a term) my parents.
That night I rummaged through my keepsake box. It was a shoebox from a pair of Oxfords my father bought for his “good shoes”. He wore them only to weddings and funerals, in place of the penny loafers he usually wore. None of the boxes my shoes came in had nearly enough room for my many childhood mementos. This in spite of my relatively short time to collect them. (A few years later, as those souvenirs multiplied, I would upgrade to a box that had held reams of mimeograph paper.)
In that box I found our class photo taken earlier in the year. Fortunately the pictures, all smaller than postage stamps, were laid out in the same order as the desks in our room. My eyes scanned up and down the rows of uncomfortable looking kids. Decked out in clothing and expressions we would never wear in class, we all looked as unnatural as aliens.
At the back of the class was Freddie Bruce. Two first names but the heartthrob of third grade. I’d had a crush on him as long as I could remember. I imagined him singing along with Jan and Dean, “Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Linda” and thinking of me. To my dismay, he was usually thinking of ratfink Karen. At least I assume he was because he was always staring at her. Even in the class picture, it looked as if his eyes strayed slightly in her direction.
But I was looking for Billy. In the top right space where the now empty desk sat, there he was: Billy Almquist. Of course! Short blond hair with a cowlick that shot up like a sheet of water hitting a seawall. A bow tie that was too small for his neck and teeth that were too big for his mouth. His smile was too wide to be genuine. (The school photographer that year was a stitch and he got all us kids to make goofy smiles such as we’d never worn before nor would again.)
The guilt of not remembering Billy’s face was lost in the guilt I felt at not figuring out he was missing from class in the first place. I wondered—I still do wonder—if I would leave such a faint impression if I were to disappear one day.
For the rest of that week, in the moments before class began, I sat alone with Billy in the room, strangely self-conscious. I’d occasionally hear noise, even voices, coming through the speaker. One voice sounded like it must have been his mother. Her voice sounded hoarse and hesitant. I couldn’t make out anything she said, though. By Friday, I was curious enough to sit near the box and listen more closely. I’d always scoot back to my seat if I ever heard anyone coming.
All that weekend, I could think about nothing but Billy Almquist. What was he like? What sickness did he have that would keep him out of school so long he needed to be present as a speaker and microphone? How long would he be out? Perhaps he’d miss the rest of the year; there was only a little more than a month left. The idea of Billy so consumed me that when the ice cream truck or “the whip” ride stopped in my neighborhood, I didn’t even leave the house. My mother started to think maybe I was sick. Would she consider getting a speaker at school for me?
Was my fascination with Billy motivated by pity or compassion? I didn’t even know the difference between the two back then. I’m still not entirely sure of it. Maybe it was simple curiosity. Whatever it was, I was anxious for Monday to arrive. It was the first time that had ever happened. And it would never happen again throughout my shaky scholastic career.
I made a complete and detailed plan to get to class extra early and make contact with Billy through the speaker. I ached to get to know him.
Monday’s dawn found me up and dressed in my best but still scruffy jumper, as if I were going to meet Freddie Bruce at the ice cream stand rather than to face another week at school. To my mother, this was further evidence that I was indeed ill. She went so far as to try to take my temperature. Before she had a chance to slip that glass tube in my mouth—I had a deadly fear I’d bite down on it, cutting my mouth up with the shards of glass, mercury dripping from my chin like some monster from “The Outer Limits”—I shot out the screen door so fast, I never heard it slam behind me.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe how far I walked to school. I would never let my child walk alone for the half mile I traveled every day. But on that day, I was in such a hurry I skipped most of the way. Why? Was I developing a crush on a box?
I got to the school before most of the staff. If they’d seen me, they might have questioned my presence at such an early hour. The few that were there were preoccupied with preparations for the day and paid me no mind.
Settling in at the desk where the speaker sat, I heard nothing. Pressing my ear against it, there was still no sound. Was Billy OK? A brief inspection of the box revealed the problem. The sound was off. That wasn’t part of my plan. My hand shook as I reached out to turn the knob to the on position. The loud click it made startled me, but not nearly as much as did the voice that came from the box.
“Is someone there?”
It was Billy’s voice. Although I’d planned to try to speak to him that morning, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I wanted to initiate contact. My mouth hung open as I stared at the steel box.
Some rustling. Then his voice, “Has class started early?”
I couldn’t wait. “Hi, Billy.”