- The Worst Thing
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[End Page 100]
You don't expect to know murderers when their stories make the newspapers. Not if you're normal. Not if you own a house surrounded by other well-kept houses.
But there she was on the front page, Amy Bender, a face I recognized, and she'd killed her own baby, one just a minute old. Given birth in her bathtub and let her newborn daughter drown. Told her boyfriend to take the body outside and throw it in the garbage, making sure it was good and covered by whatever else was in the can.
It's hard to read these things. I stopped a few times that first day of her news and sipped coffee. I ate a third chocolate-iced, custard-filled [End Page 101] doughnut, something I hadn't done for ten years or more. And there I was, just retired, two weeks into the first summer that wouldn't end the last Monday in August when school took up again.
Those fourth graders would get along without me. The school had hired a woman who was younger than all three of my daughters, and though her age didn't bother me, it bothered me that I'd been the only male teacher at Governor Snyder Elementary School, and now there it was, all women again, kindergarten through fourth grade at the school named after the one Pennsylvania governor who'd ever come from our county. Like the old days, the '50s, when I'd reached seventh grade before I ever met a man in school.
* * *
"You won't even know you've retired until September," my wife kept saying, but Connie was wrong. I felt like I'd died, like I'd been buried and the dirt piled on. "You just need something to keep you busy," Connie said, and there was some truth to that.
She'd been a teacher too, thirty years and out four years ago, even with the three girls of her own to tend along the way, somebody content now with weight-control swimming classes, book-club meetings and three days a week of volunteer work. She'd taught Spanish at the high school in the same district where I'd taught, and she'd counted down the last fifty days on a big sheet of paper she stuck to the refrigerator with magnets. "It's different there," she'd said of the high school. "Not as hopeful. Even the good kids are hard now."
For years people had remarked that the two of us were inside-out: Connie at the high school, like a man, me with the young, like a woman. And then, these past ten years, that sort of thinking had slowed down and nearly stopped, muted like all the other opinions about gender and race and ethnicity that people learned to at least keep to themselves.
But that baby-killing woman, that Amy Bender, she'd had a boy in my class last year and a girl the year before. I remembered those two children, both of them terrible students, the kind you know won't finish high school, the girl likely to be pregnant by sixteen, maybe sooner. You're not supposed to think that way about nine- and ten-year-olds, but there's no denying experience.
Right then, as I read about their mother while I crammed that extra doughnut down my throat, I wondered where those children, just ten and eleven years old, had been when all this was going on. And the article, as if the writer understood what any reader would want to know, answered that question on page two: Louisiana. I'd thought the boy had just followed his sister to the middle school, [End Page 102] but in fact his father had taken him. The girl too, though the whereabouts of her own father remained unknown.
"There's something that calls for the word piacular," I said to Connie.
She made the face she uses every time I mention one of the weird, rare words I...