[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?”
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. →]