Do You Believe in Magic (or Science?)

The estimable musical force of nature known as John Sebastian wrote a song that has become an institution in popular culture. Since it was recorded and released by The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965, “Do You Believe in Magic” has become one of the most recognizable songs in American pop music history. The reason is simple: It’s a wicked awesome song. (And one of the few hit songs to feature an autoharp.) It has been covered by many artists and has been featured in movies and on TV. It’s likely to live on as long as people have ears and want to move to music.

Recently, I’ve been thinking of that great song in conjunction with an insightful quote by the late science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke (he of “2001: A Space Odyssey” fame):

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This statement is surely accurate. I experience its truth all the time. My phone, computer, TV, and much of my car seem to have been created as much by Merlin (or at least Penn and Teller) as by engineers. I have no idea how they work but I trust that they do… most of the time. (When they don’t I curse them up and down while banging my head against the wall.)

This leads to a most relevant question for these trying times: Do you believe in science, even when it’s more like magic? The fact is that most people, even those who deny the veracity of certain scientific claims such as climate change, do believe in science. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be trusting the internet, a world-altering scientific (and administrative) bit of sorcery if ever there was one, to push their anti-intellectual drivel. (An aside to my conservative friends: Please note that the internet was developed and funded by the federal government.)

A friend once told me he thought people who deny clear, obvious, and well-accepted scientific truths shouldn’t be allowed to own a TV. He has a point. If you reject science, maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from it. I’d add to his list phones, antibiotics, Netflix, eyeglasses, X-rays, airplanes, and most everything else that makes modern life, um, modern.

The truth of the matter is that we believe in the science we want to believe in and reject that which undermines our preconceived worldview. Thus, if what you care about is oil company stock value, you will deny climate change. If you don’t want government to tell you to wear a mask, you deny Covid, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

My liberal friends can be guilty of the same pick-and-choose attitude toward science. In spite of being told by the same scientific experts they formerly trusted that the Covid vaccine is effective, many are still hiding in their homes and wearing masks.

On the other hand, to quote a friend of mine who happens to be a physics genius, “Medicine is not science.” As a person with a chronic illness about which there is no certain “scientific” knowledge, I’ve experienced this truth first hand… and leg and brain. In medicine, it seems as if very little is fixed and certain. Imagine if physics were like that. What if gravity worked 95% of the time or if E equaled MC2 usually but it equaled MC3 for some people, especially on really humid days?

Thank God (I mean that literally) it doesn’t work that way. So, barring occasional (but inevitable) manufacturing, material, or software flaws or human stupidity or evil, your phone just works. Antibiotics cure you. The plane almost takes off and lands safely where you want it to.

I guess the point of all these ramblings is that there are many subtle sides to this “belief in science” thing. As long as humans are involved, with all their mixed motives and imperfections, science as it is communicated to us, will always feel a bit tenuous. At one point, “science” endorsed things like leeches to cure disease, eugenics to purify the human race, and, not that long ago, homosexuality as a mental disorder. Who’s ready to go back there?

Now, perhaps we’ve reached the point where we actually know everything there is to know for our science to be pure and exact. Not likely. That’s what they thought when scientists said bad smells caused disease. And when people with multiple sclerosis were told not to exercise. See this older post on my other blog for a litany of badly mistaken medical advice from the past.

Maybe we need to be more thoughtful about our beliefs. The question is…

Do you believe in magic?

The Year Without Smiles

The year 1816 has come to be known as “the year without summer”, all because temperatures around the world were up to 3 degrees cooler than normal due to the largest volcanic eruption in world history.

3 degrees.

Doesn’t sound all that bad to me. It wouldn’t have kept me away from the beach or off my bike. Still, it was enough to wipe out crops, cause near-famine conditions, and provoke atypical outbreaks of disease, so I guess it should be taken seriously. (Do we really want to find out what a permanent rise of a few degrees created by climate change will bring about?)

What will 2020 become known as? The year of Covid, coronavirus, or simply “the pandemic”? To me, it will be the year without smiles. What is there to smile about when confronted with the anguish caused by the constant threat of serious illness and loss of life for ourselves, loved ones, and hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens of the world? There’s little reason to smile for the overworked and overwhelmed healthcare workers watching waves of the sick and dying pass through their care. Even less for the elders spending their waning years isolated behind walls of glass or clear plastic, lacking the comfort of human touch.

(And this was written before a sitting president encouraged a mob of misguided, mentally deficient terrorists to attempt to overthrow the government. Sheesh.)

And if you are among the fortunate who haven’t lost a loved one, a job, or a business venture at the hands of this callous virus, perhaps you’ve been able to manage the occasional grin, whether feigned or from a grateful heart. As St. Paul encourages us, we should give thanks in (not necessarily for) all circumstances. It’s safe to assume that he would include Covid-19 within the definition of “all”. Psychologists have finally come around to Paul’s ancient wisdom, acknowledging the power of gratitude in emotional and physical healing.

So what do we have to be thankful for in the lengthening shadow of a killer pandemic? A number of things come immediately to mind:

  • Businesses overcoming the resistance to allowing employees to work from home. (May they not forget!)
  • Increased outdoor activity and the accommodation thereof. (Even if it caused a shortage of bicycles and their parts.)
  • A tiny-handed and tinier-brained would-be autocrat was taken out of the White House and out to the woodshed. (May he remain there.)
  • I don’t have to take my partially completed jigsaw puzzles off the dining room table; no company’s coming.
  • Increased awareness of the need to address issues of racial justice. (Even if we have yet to actually implement the necessary measures to mitigate the problems.)
  • Forced family time (for better or worse).
  • Creativity demonstrated by individuals and organizations to address the limitations imposed by the pandemic.
  • Zoom! (Saving grace for us extroverts.)

So, contrary to all logic, for the above reasons and more, I’m still able to smile and maybe you are, too.

But it doesn’t matter. All those smiles are hidden behind masks.* This is a not-to-be-underestimated problem for our society as a whole. Look, I’m used to seeing people walk down the street wearing grimaces and scowls, but there are usually enough smiles around to compensate for all those malcontents. Now, however, I have no idea what’s hiding behind those masks. I’m not the best at reading facial expressions as it is, but when all I see is a pair of eyes (and a nose, in the case of the weak-minded who seem to believe Covid is transmitted only through the mouth and/or chin) I’m useless.

This problem is most harmful to children. They are nourished by smiles, not to mention the equally unavailable hug. Outside of their immediate families, some little ones may go days or even weeks without seeing someone smile at them. (TV smiles are not and should never be a substitute.) What impression of the world are they developing? In my mind, every child needs and deserves every smile we can give them. That’s one reason I smile at every child I see. I still do, but they can’t see it.

I can’t stand it anymore. When a vaccine was initially under development, I was ambivalent about getting it, especially early in its distribution. Now, though, I’m ready to get in line first chance. By the grace of God, I’m ready to shine my smile again.

* Please note that I’m not an no-masker. Those folks are a toxic combination of ignorance and selfishness. If nothing else, 2016-2021 has amply demonstrated to us the danger of that personality type.

Something/Anything… Else!

Hello, it’s me.

The two devices that store and play most of my music are my phone and my car’s sound system. I have both set to play random selections from my entire collection. Lately, for some unknown reason, they’ve both played a lot of songs by Todd Rundgren. (Pretty much everything I listen to is over 40 years old.) I have no problem with this. I don’t think I’m alone in the opinion that Mr. Rundgren is a musical genius. The (brilliant) LP “Something/Anything” is the one that keeps getting played. Which got me to thinking…

I’d like to talk about something/anything other than Covid-19!*

I can’t be the only one who feels this way, yet it’s still all anyone talks about. Including me! Maybe it’s because we can’t think of anything else to talk about. There aren’t that many subjects we cover in most conversations anyway.

Many of those are off limits.

Religion and politics are taboo in the best of times. Now that they’ve merged into an unholy alliance, they’re even less appealing. Besides, the maniacal moron now occupying the White House part time is a one-man pandemic and just as tiresome a topic.

Others are just plain dull.

The weather is a popular, if tedious, conversational crutch. Let’s skip that one, too, for the cliche it is. Your latest purchase or home renovation? Equally banal. And equally unedifying. And maybe just a wee bit vain.

Hey, we can always rely on sports to prompt a lively discussion or argument. How ’bout that? Oh, yeah. There are no sports happening because of the… well, you know.

So what’s left?

One of my favorite fonts of conversational fodder is movies. Most people have a good stockpile of movie experiences and opinions. The same goes for books and TV shows. Those talks can also lead to deeper exchanges. Such as…

One another. Tell me about you. No, not what you own or what you’ve accomplished. You. As the equally brilliant Michael Omartian once sang:

I don’t want to hear about your conquests,
Or your casual affairs.
Each one a great new story…
But who cares.

I want to know about your feelings,
Or the ache in your heart,
The thoughts that make you what you are,
That set you apart.

‘Cause maybe I’ve had them, too.

We avoid those sensitive topics, not wishing to make ourselves vulnerable, but is anything more important? Granted, this is not the stuff of light banter among casual acquaintances. In those cases, the weather will suffice. When sharing with someone closer, though, coronavirus is as sterile a subject as any. Why not go deeper?

For example, let’s talk about God. (That’s different than religion.) The way we conceive of Him might determine what’s inside us better than any other question. As A. W. Tozer once put it:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.

What are your dreams, hopes, and plans? What are your fears, failures, and disappointments? Now we’re getting somewhere. Drop that stuff on me and we both might benefit. You get to share your burden and I could find a kindred spirit.

Or we could fall back on R.E.M.’s advice**:

Should we talk about the weather?
Should we talk about the government?

Sure. Something/Anything but Covid-19.

* I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, but it shouldn’t be all-consuming. To obsess over it is as dangerous to our mental health as the virus is to our physical bodies.

** I’m of the opinion that a post can’t have too many references to quality music.

Worst Case Scenario

As a writer, there’s not much more gratifying than having your words read by others. Hearing them read out loud is even more fun. That’s one of the benefits of writing plays or screenplays as opposed to prose. Those words are meant to be performed.

Because I have yet to sell any of the dozen or so screenplays I’ve written, I have at times taken matters into my own hands (actually into a whole group of others’ hands) and created vehicles for those words. I present one of them here.

Today we find ourselves mired in–choose your favorite adjective–unprecedented, challenging, trying, difficult, crazy times. As I described in this post on my other blog, unless you were alive in 1918 to experience the incorrectly named Spanish influenza epidemic, you are flailing about with the rest of us in uncharted territory. Perhaps I was prescient when I wrote the script for the accompanying video, but probably not. The video does, however, capture the spirit of the times in which we live. I hope you enjoy the gallows humor.

Profound thanks to my friends at Dark Glass who produced this video eight years ago. Check out their other videos on their YouTube channel.

The Boy in the Box – Part V

[As a result of her unwillingness to face Billy, the boy in the box, he seems to have stopped communicating with her. ]

In the last days of the school year, nothing important ever happens. Kids are all mentally absent, thinking about summer and the beach, little league and vacations. That year, the only school work left to be done was the annual end-of-year science fair. I always did the same project: a model solar system with papier-mâché planets painted vaguely like the real things. I wasn’t particular about the likenesses. Defying astronomical norms, the planets were often egg shaped. One year, Jupiter’s big red spot was more of a purple. I got a “B”. I think the judges were color blind.

The day of the fair, as I lugged my unnatural solar system into the cafetorium (a word the school made up as a label for the space that served as both cafeteria and auditorium) I thought I saw Billy’s Mom leaving the room. I dropped my project on a table and went to look for her but she was gone, if she’d been there at all. I searched the area for any sign of her. What I found was a sign, all right.

A huge, silent crowd of admiring students and teachers surrounded one table. Curious, I elbowed my way through the group until I reached the display that had attracted them.

What I saw was like nothing I’d ever seen in a school science fair. It was a sculpture of a dolphin that looked perfect to my 3rd grade eyes. The subtle shades of white and gray paint that colored it made it look alive, as did the perfect arch of its body captured in the middle of a leap from the surf. I half expected it to continue its path back into the waves, making a perfect entrance into the water with barely a splash. Its mouth wore the mischievous smile that so captured my imagination.

Behind the sculpture was a sheet of poster board on which was clearly handwritten and illustrated all the known scientific facts about the animal’s diet, habitat, intelligence, evolution, and behavior. It even outlined a naive attempt to analyze its language.

The whole display looked as if a college professor had created it with the assistance of a professional artist. I didn’t have to ask who had created it or why.

There was no visible seam in the piece, so I was surprised when a teacher removed one side of the sculpture to reveal an extraordinarily accurate portrayal of the dolphin’s internal organs. Something about seeing that beautiful work of art opened, gutted like a fish, made me scream out loud, “No! Put it back together! Put it back!!” The people who encircled the project probably thought I was insane, which I probably was.

I couldn’t look at the mutilated animal. I shoved my way out through the crowd and stopped at the table where I’d put my solar system. My pathetic project made me sick. It reminded me of my failure. Of all my failures. I smashed it to pieces. Collecting the fragments, I carried them to a nearby trash can and dumped it all in. My oblong Venus fell from my hands and wobbled along the floor. I chased it and kicked it across the cafetorium before running home in tears.

It was Friday and I was beginning to hate the weekends. All I thought about was Billy Almquist. All I felt was guilt. I might have been his only friend, the only person outside his house who cared about him. (But did I really care at all?) It made me wonder whether those thoughts would ruin my whole summer.

Because we’d had so many snow days that year—there were also a couple of “cold days” when the school’s old furnace froze up and school had to be canceled—the last day of school was the following Monday. And it was a half day. What are the odds a classroom full of eight-year-olds in a stuffy classroom, freshly returned from the weekend on a warm, sunny day would be able to concentrate on anything except what was going on outside the windows? I was concentrating on something else: Billy’s desk. Billy’s empty desk.

The box was gone. No speaker. No Billy.

Maybe he skipped out on what was sure to be a meaningless day. It wasn’t likely. He was the most diligent student in the class and the school was going to announce the winners of the science fair that day. Billy would almost certainly take first prize. He should have been listening in.

Maybe something was wrong. Sitting in that room, there was no way of knowing. Was it my imagination or had his voice grown weaker and his class participation less frequent with each passing day after I’d dropped off the workbook? I vowed to stop at his house on the way home from school. I wouldn’t chicken out this time. I needed to know what had happened.

* * *

The “For Sale” sign in front of the house told half the story. At the door, I knocked, rang, banged, peeked, pushed, rattled. The house was completely empty with no indication of what had happened to Billy or his mother. When I realized that I didn’t know if there were any other family members, my failure was complete.

In my mind, years passed as I stood on the sidewalk in front of that house. It was crumbling before my very eyes. Over time it would become the neighborhood eyesore, a childhood terror. The place where a little boy… Where something happened to a little boy. Stories of unnatural events would spread through the town, striking fear into the hearts of children. As long as it stood there, younger children would cross the street to avoid coming too close. It would be a test of bravery for older kids who dared each other to run up to it and knock or push the long-broken doorbell. Rocks rained down on the structure until the day a developer razed it and built a cookie-cutter split-entry house in its place.

We all grew up, mostly leaving behind any thoughts of third grade. Freddie married ratfink Karen. Turned out they were a pretty good couple. It was a shame when Freddie was among the last Marines lost in Vietnam, presumed dead. Karen’s formerly perfect posture declined badly after that. Dale tried college but dropped out. A year later he was found alone in a closet with a needle in his arm. Wiggly Quigley, quite possibly the only person in the whole school who truly cared about Billy, retired after she taught our class. She’d aged beyond the norm during that school year. God only knows what happened to her after that.

As for me, after high school I bounced around the country for a few years, finally landing in a distant city, as far as I could get from my parents and my past. My former dream of becoming a marine biologist was long forgotten. I came close, I guess. I work in a PetSmart, hawking fish flakes, bird cages, and cat toys to annoying customers. No spelling skills needed there.

I never found out what happened to Billy; I never even tried. He would, in fact, haunt my memory for the rest of my life. When I was younger, I promised myself I’d name my first child Billy. Instead, I called him Michael. It was the most popular name at the time and sounded nothing like Billy. I needed no further reminders of the boy in the box, the first love of my life.

[←Part IV can be found here.]

[← To go to the beginning of the story, click here.]

The idea for this story came from my own admittedly hazy memory of grade school. We had boys and girls in boxes. It might never have been written, however, had I not met Mark Sullivan. He was a boy in the box for a while in his youth because of a chronic illness. I talked to him to get some of the specifics to lend more credibility to my tale.

When Mark’s illness claimed his life a year and a half ago, the story gained considerably more gravity. He was my age. Linda’s pain has become mine. This story is dedicated to Mark Sullivan.

* * *

As I write these words, a pandemic has driven home the need to support distance learning at the K-12 level for both individuals and large numbers. The technology already exists, but needs to be improved. As I’m fond of telling friends, if this country diverted the funds from a single aircraft carrier or even a single high-tech bomber, both of which are totally obsolete in this information-driven world, we’d be able to solve this and a lot of other of this nation’s problems.

For your edification, click this sentence to read an article that describes one contemporary approach to the boy in the box.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Boy in the Box – Part IV

[Linda continues her early morning meetings with Billy, the boy in the box.]

One Friday, after a couple more weeks of my secret rendezvous with Billy’s box, during which time I thought I noticed his voice getting weaker and his cough increasing in frequency and intensity, Mrs. Quigley announced that we were starting a new reading workbook. She handed them out to the class for us to review over the weekend. (Obviously, she was a cockeyed optimist.) Then she asked for volunteers to bring a copy to Billy’s home. No third-grader with any sense of self-preservation would volunteer for anything Mrs. Quigley asked us to do. But I did want to do this. Knowing there would be plenty of time to respond as the other students cowered and averted their eyes to avoid being called on, I slowly raised my hand to half-staff as if I were doing it against my will. No one needed to know how anxious I was to volunteer.

I was dying to see him in person. The thumbnail size picture from the class photo was the only image I had of him, although it took up a disproportionate amount of space in my mind and heart by that time. After class, Mrs. Quigley gave me Billy’s address and the workbook. She thanked me sincerely.

“Aw, it’s no big deal. It’s on my way home anyway.” In fact, it was quite a ways off my usual route home. It didn’t matter to me. I would have gone anywhere to do this errand. That was before reality—reality of my cowardice, that is—hit.

The closer I got to the address Mrs. Quigley had written on the yellow three-by-five index card, the slower my steps became. Doubts were unexpectedly dogging my steps. What was I thinking? What if Billy was dying? Or deformed? Would I have to face him and make small talk about class or the news? (I didn’t know anything about the news except that there were a lot of riots with colored people. My father blamed it all on “that Papist” Kennedy. I didn’t know what to think. I’d never met a Negro but his opinion sounded wrong to me.)

As soon as the house came into view, I froze. Without realizing it, I was crushing the workbook in my tightened fist. The decision to be made was whether it was more embarrassing to deliver the book or to go back to Wiggly Quigley and admit I chickened out. I could lie and tell her there was a dog at the house that was barking and scaring me or I lost the address or something. Unfortunately, I’d been lying to her too often lately. Last time I did, her smirk told me she was catching on. I had to go through with it.

The cramped ranch house was the smallest on the street. It was also in the worst shape, badly in need of a paint job and a good lawn-mowing. Seeing a mailbox hanging beside the door, an idea slithered into my thoughts. The workbook would fit into the box and I could disappear without being seen. I was ashamed of myself for even thinking of it but it was a solution—perhaps the only solution—to my dilemma.

Whether it was nerves or guilt, I’ll never know, but my hand trembled as I slowly and as quietly as possible lifted the flap covering the mailbox. It slipped from my fingers and fell with a resounding clang against the box. I might as well have screamed at the top of my lungs. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs.

The inner door opened and I saw a woman through the dirty screen. She opened the screen door and leaned out. She wore a pretty, though soiled dress. She looked as if she’d spent a lot of time with rollers in her hair and putting on makeup. Still, her eyes were red and her smile was forced. Even at the tender age of 8, I could recognize it. The morning after a big fight, my parents always wore that same expression.

“Hi,” she said. “You must be Linda. I’m Billy’s Mom.” How does she know who I am?

“Yeah, um,” I stared at my feet and held out the book. “This is for Billy.”

“That is so sweet of you, Linda. Would you like to come in and give it to him yourself? He hasn’t had many visitors.”

Her voice quivered on her last statement, but I was unmoved. Even as my feet had resisted approaching the house, now they felt as if they might run away on their own. I was already moving away as I uttered, “I can’t. I gotta go. My mother is probably worried about me already.”

My mother wouldn’t have worried about me unless I was two days late. Even then…

It took a good twenty seconds after I left until I heard the screen door close at the house. Billy’s Mom must have watched me for a long time, wondering what kind of child would refuse to visit a sick friend. I wondered the same. But I wasn’t Billy’s friend. He was a stranger before he disappeared and he was nothing but a speaker in a box to me now. That’s what I told myself anyway.

At home, I went directly to my room and cried. No one was around so there was no danger of exposing my emotions to my parents, who would have simply shaken their heads in disgust. I sobbed for the better part of an hour without knowing—or without admitting to myself—why. At last I fell asleep with tears in my eyes.

I dreamed my bed was surrounded by speakers like the one Billy’s voice came through in class. From each came a different voice, some at normal volume but many in shrill cries. Nothing I heard was intelligible but still they cut me like knives. I covered my ears with my hands, but the voices only grew louder. I awoke in a sweat. I was surprised to see there were no speakers because the voices still rang in my ears.

The weekend dragged by. I wasn’t sure how I would face Monday. Instead of thinking about it, I settled into my early morning routine, going to Mrs. Quigley’s classroom before anyone else. From the doorway, I thought I heard soft sounds coming through the intercom, like a whimpering child. As I approached it, there was a click and no more sounds. I leaned over the speaker and whispered, “Billy? Are you there?” There was no answer. From the switch position, I could see that the classroom speaker was on. But there was no indication at all that the microphone was on at his house. I would have heard background noise or even a little static.

People were milling around outside the door. I had to return to my seat in the corner. When the teacher squeezed her wiggly bottom into her chair, she spoke to us. “Good morning, class.”

We all replied with our rote response, “Good morning, Mrs. Quigley.” I’m sure I heard a few “wiggly”s in there but she didn’t catch on.

With a maternal smile on her face, she spoke into the box on Billy’s desk. “Are you there, Billy?”

There was a click and Billy answered in a tone that could only be described as subdued. “Yes, Ma’am.” Usually, Mrs. Quigley hated it when people called her Ma’am. I heard her tell another teacher it was because it made her sound old (she was old) or like the owner of a house of ill repute, whatever that was. I figured she let Billy get away with it. I figured she let him get away with a lot of stuff.

For about three seconds, I envied him.

In the final two weeks of the school year, Billy and I didn’t communicate at all. I came in early every day, but he was never on the intercom. He must have found out I’d come by but didn’t want to see him. It wasn’t fair. I did want to see him… but I couldn’t. If he felt bad about it, I felt worse.

For about three seconds, I felt sorry for myself.

[←Part III can be found here.][Part V can be found here. →]

[← To go to the beginning of the story, click here.]

The Boy in the Box – Part III

[As the last installment ended, Linda spoke just two words into the box: “Hi, Billy.” Much to her surprise, a voice from the box replied, “Linda?”]

A shock raced through my body. I couldn’t speak. Nothing was happening according to my plan. I became aware of my body shaking. Feeling like a total doofus, I decided to wing it and see what happened.

“Yes. How did you know who it was?”

His reply came with no hesitation. “I’d know your voice anywhere. Even through this crummy speaker.”

Stunned. There’s no other word for it. How did he recognize my voice, a voice rarely raised in the classroom setting, when I didn’t even know who he was? Big thoughts burned in my immature mind.

“Oh.” Yup, I was a doofus all right. Now Billy knew it, too.

“You’ve been listening at the speaker a lot, haven’t you?”

“No. Well, I have a bit, but. No. Maybe some.” The plan was completely unraveled by that point, as was I. “How did you know?”

“I could just tell.” Some static followed his statement. I wasn’t sure if it came from the box or my brain.

“So how you doin’?” Now I was getting personal. Or as personal as I got.

“OK. I guess. How’s school for you?”

“Fine. I guess.”

“Kinda weird having that speaker in there, huh?”

“Yeah. Kinda weird.” My conversation skills were no more advanced than my spelling.

“What does it look like?”


“The speaker.”

It never occurred to me that he had no idea how we were listening to him. “It’s gray. It’s metal. Has a knob on it. Not too big. Looks a lot like one of those speakers you hang in the window at the drive-in.”

“That’s sorta what mine looks like, too.”

“How does it work?”

“I dunno. Like a telephone, I guess.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Noises outside the door caught me by surprise. “I gotta go,” I told him and scurried to my desk in the back of the room.


Mrs. Quigley waddled in and the box went silent. “Someone’s here early. Are you looking for some extra help?”

“I was…” I can’t believe I almost told her I’d been talking to Billy. “No, Mrs. Quigley.”

“Because if you need help with your spelling words, I can go over them with you. Your last test showed room for improvement.”

“I know, Mrs. Quigley. I’ve been working on them.” Lying to Mrs. Quigley had become a reflex to me over the course of the school year.

The rest of the day dragged. I was so bored, I actually found myself reviewing those spelling words. Unless I absolutely had to look elsewhere, my eyes were riveted to the gray box.

I repeated Monday’s actions the next day. But this time the box was already on as I walked in. I knew it because I hadn’t even reached the speaker when Billy said, “Hi, Linda.”

“Are you one of those mind readers?”

A little laugh, distorted through the cheap speaker. “No, I just know your footsteps. Are you wearing the white shoes?” I was. “You always wear the white shoes on Tuesdays.”

“Do you know this much about everyone in our class?”

“No.” He took a long pause. “But I know that ratfink Karen picks her nose.”

I laughed so loud, I was afraid the janitor would come in to see if I was all right. (He was in the hall spreading that sawdust stuff over a place where someone had puked. He was busy that spring. A stomach flu had ravaged the whole school.) Soon, Billy was laughing along with me. Eventually his laughter became a hoarse cough. Before I knew it, the sound of his mother’s voice came through and our conversation was over.

For the rest of the week, we stuck to the same pattern. Sometimes the speaker was already on and other days I had to turn it on. Either way Billy was always there and ready to talk. He knew more about me than I knew about anyone. That made me want to find out about him.

We talked about our favorite movies. We both loved “In Search of Castaways”. I thought the boy who played John was a dream and I wondered if Billy had a crush on Hayley Mills. It seemed like every boy did. We watched some of the same shows, too: “The Flintstones” and “Jetsons”, of course, a new show, “The Beverly Hillbillies” (we sang the theme song for it until he ran out of breath and I started laughing) and “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color”. That’s when Billy told me the color world might be wonderful, but he couldn’t see it. He only had a black and white TV.

Billy and I agreed the new singing group, The Beatles, were weird. It was their fault I’d failed my last spelling test. The word “beetle” was on it and I spelled it the way the group did. I’d never forgive them.

The rhinoceros was his favorite animal. He said that, even though it was really kind of ugly, it did whatever it wanted to because it was strong and unafraid, two traits he felt he lacked.

My favorite was the dolphin… or porpoise. I didn’t know what the difference was. Billy seemed to be more interested in dolphins than I was. He asked me question after question, most of which I had no answer for. All I knew was I thought dolphins were happy because they were always smiling, at least it seemed that way to me. They acted so smart and could do cool tricks. It even seemed as if they could talk with that chattering sound they made. I told Billy I wanted to become a marine biologist so I could learn about dolphins but my grades were lousy, so it wouldn’t happen. Billy said he thought I could and should do it if I really wanted to.

All our conversations ended at the first sound of anyone approaching the room, whether student or teacher. One time I was still sitting at the desk when ratfink Karen came in. She was so stuck up she didn’t say anything, just made a face. I wanted to tell her to go pick her nose but Billy might have heard and started laughing until he coughed again.

Friday I convinced Mrs. Quigley that I had a bellyache and had to stay in for recess. Everyone else was playing kickball and I didn’t want to puke all over the place. The janitor might run out of sawdust. She wanted to send me to the nurse but I talked her out of it. Instead I stayed inside and talked to Billy for a whole half hour. The time went by so fast, I didn’t even notice when Mrs. Quigley walked in and saw me sitting in front of the box. I quickly tried to cover up.

“How does this thing work, Mrs. Quigley?” I said as I rapped my fingers on the top of the steel case.

“Be careful with that speaker, Linda. It’s a very delicate electronic device. It costs a fortune. If you break it, you’ll have to buy a new one. I don’t think you could afford it unless you have money in the bank. Do you have money in the bank, Miss Zengilowski?”

The woman was obsessed with my financial state. But no, I had no money so I shook my head and retreated to my seat at the back of the room.

“You seem to be feeling better, young lady.”

“Yes, Wi… Mrs. Quigley.” That was close. The last kid who accidentally called her “Wiggly” was sent home for two days. That kid didn’t get a speaker.

I’ll never forget the day I had to go back into the room to get my sweater soon after recess started. Two boys, Freddie and his creepy friend Dale, were huddled around the speaker. Before they noticed I was there, I heard Freddie teasing Billy. “Is it hot in there, Billy-in-the-box? When are you going to pop out and scare everyone?”

Egged on by Freddie, Dale continued. “Poor little Billy! Must be hard being so small. At least you’re the teacher’s pet.”

Freddie jumped on that one. “Yeah, this pet has his own box to live in.” They both thought that was a riot and laughed directly into the speaker. Billy said nothing. When the two boys saw me standing there, Freddie said, “What are you looking at? Why don’t you go to the back row and count your cooties.” More childish laughter from the two.

I gave them my best retort, “I’m like a mirror, you’re like glue. It bounces off me and sticks to you.” They were unimpressed and left the room. After I got my sweater, I spoke into the speaker. “Billy?”

There was a pause. Billy’s voice cracked as he said, “Hi, Linda.”

“Sorry about those two drips. They’re mental.”

“I’m used to it.”

I was so ticked off, I turned red. “What?!?”

“Yeah, someone’s always making little jokes in the speaker. I used to turn it off on my end, but now I just let them have their fun. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“It does to me. I’m gonna tell on them,” I proclaimed in my most indignant voice. Did I ever do anything about it? Nope. Even after the time someone stuck a pair of Groucho “nose glasses” on the speaker, I did nothing. Mrs. Quigley did, though. Without calling attention to their presence, she yanked them off. In an unusual display of hot anger, she crushed them in her hand and tossed them in the trash. My respect for her grew a lot after that.

[←Part II can be found here.][Part IV can be found here. →]

[← To go to the beginning of the story, click here.]

The Boy in the Box – Part II

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.”


[←Part I can be found here.][Part III can be found here. →]

The Boy in the Box

[This is the first episode of a multi-part post that will comprise a short story I wrote about a year and a half ago. It meant a lot to me at the time because it captures an era of history and, more specifically, of my life that is forever gone, except in faded recollections. If you are a child of the 60’s as I am, I hope some of it rings true and awakens pleasant memories. If not, accept it as a snapshot of a more innocent and less technological time.

Additionally, it has come to mean even more to me since the time I wrote it. I’ll explain why after the final post in the series. How long that series will be remains as much a mystery to me as it is to you.]

The Boy in the Box

Part I

The classroom was empty that Monday spring morning, as it always was when I got there. My badly-worn, too-small black patent leather shoes clicked on the bare vinyl floor in time with the oversized clock that ticked loudly on the wall.

I always tried to be the first one in class. I liked to watch other people enter almost as much as I hated others watching me. I tended to slouch. There was no way I’d be in the running for the 1963 Benjamin Thompson Elementary School 3rd Grade Good Posture Award. That ratfink Karen won the girls’ prize every year even though she picked her nose when no one was looking. No one except me.

Besides being a sloucher, I wasn’t a very good student. And I talked to myself a lot. Still do. When Mrs. Quigley wrote on the blackboard with her back to us and she heard talking, she didn’t know it was usually me. Without ever turning to face us, she always said the same thing. “I hear talking back there. I know no one is talking in class because that’s against my rules. I can only assume you’re talking to yourself. You know what they say about people who talk to themselves? They’re either crazy or they have money in the bank. Now, I know none of you has money in the bank, so…”

She probably thought the giggling she heard was the class reacting to her terribly clever remark. Actually, we were laughing at her big behind swinging back and forth in her flowery dress as she scratched the chalk across the blackboard. Behind her back—as we so often were—we called her “wiggly Quigley”.

She was right, though. I was talking to myself and I didn’t have money in the bank. Maybe I was crazy. But do crazy people know they’re crazy? It never occurred to me that simply having the presence of mind to consider my mental state was proof enough of my sanity.

Or was it?

Sitting in that third grade classroom, I listened to the chaos in the hall where confused and half-crazed kids raced to their rooms. Unlike me, most delayed their entrance as long as possible. Arriving, they wedged themselves into tiny chairs that were permanently attached to equally small desks. The legs of the chair-desks made jarring, unearthly sounds beneath us as they skidded across the floor, as they did whenever careless urchins threw themselves into their seats. Textbooks and workbooks were stuffed into all our desks. My desk also contained crushed copies of every test I’d taken all year. I never brought them home to my parents, as I was supposed to. I was in no hurry to reveal my lack of academic progress to them and they never asked. They’d find out later when my report card came home. If it came home.

My mind wandered back to my school day preparations at home. Every morning I closed my eyes and randomly selected one record from the little robin’s-egg-blue vinyl-covered cardboard box that contained my collection of 45’s. This morning it was Leslie Gore singing “It’s My Party”. It wouldn’t have been my first choice. It depressed me when it came out and it depressed me that morning. (Fortunately, Leslie came out with her revenge just a few months later in “Judy’s Turn to Cry” or I might have given up on romance for life.) No, I was hoping for something a little lighter, like “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” or some Beach Boys surfing tune, but fate would have none of that.

The song turned out to be appropriate; it was a depressing day. Rain fell like cats and dogs and ran down the school’s pastel-paneled exterior walls. (The building was only five years old but it already felt and looked out of date and in need of replacement.) There was a spelling quiz. I lost a barrette. I forgot my lunchbox.

And it was the first day Billy Almquist was absent.

[Part II can be found here. →]