The Ten Deaths of Mrs. Haverhill’s Second-Grade Class by Sam Berman
In “The Ten Deaths of Mrs. Haverhill’s Second-Grade Class,” Sam Berman tells an eerie yet luminous tale about the curious number of tragic deaths of students in one teacher’s class. Despite the looming sense of doom for the surviving students, the voice and tone in the opening page lend a surprising lightness to the story, while the varied and unpredictable, almost irreverent, structure underscores the uncertainty regarding who will die next. As Berman states in his author’s note, “This story is written with a lot of pop and verve, but the subject matter is about as dark as it comes.”
Berman initially establishes a casual, even chummy, first-person narrative voice as well as an optimistic tone in the opening page, which can be viewed, in retrospect, as a striking comparison to the events about to unfold. The narrator and former second-grade student, Laura Nicolette, whimsically introduces the reader to a younger Mrs. Haverhill through her haircut and dye job then adds, almost as a gossipy aside, that she chose this hairstyle “to distinguish herself from the other long-necked, loose-sweatered girls in the theology department,” as though inviting the reader into a tête-à-tête. Concurrently, the tone is sweet and nostalgic when Laura describes the way “daisies and buttercups swayed beneath the hot sun” outside the church where Mrs. Haverhill marries and, later, how husband and wife stopped “every few blocks to kiss and touch as soft sounds of night traffic fell….”
Then, breaks in the narrative structure begin to correspond with the student deaths, echoing the disruptive and unpredictable nature of these events. The narrative is first interrupted with a title in the form of a name and number, “Lorena 7,” denoting the name and age of the first student to die. The moment the reader adjusts to this pattern for death announcements, the structure changes again with a class roster wherein the names of the dead are crossed out. The sentences also follow an unexpected pattern using miniheadlines typically in the form of two words followed by a colon, repetitions with incomplete sentences separated by periods, and single-line—and even single-word—staccato-like paragraphs. At one point, following a number of deaths occurring all at once, one passage forms a series of pattern breaks composed of a name with a number, a class roster with yet another crossed-out name, and the sentence, “We’d become a story,” which is repeated with another name, another updated class roster, and the shortened phrase, “A story.” These series of disruptions effectively create a visual and narrative jolt to reflect the sheer volume of deaths, while also conveying the narrator’s state of mind to the reader.
Throughout this piece, Laura speculates on when she will die, and this morbid uncertainty propels her to engage with life. As Berman notes, “The character’s motivation needs to be, I want to go drink with my friends, I want to have sex, I want to do things kids my own age are doing, while the whole time as a reader you have this dread….” In one passage, Laura is hopeful when she notices some boys at a funeral playing a game of tug-of-war. And she thinks, “Could I play? If there was a God way up there, could I please play?” Later, when the surviving students experience a temporary reprieve from the frequent deaths, Berman underscores this moment with a long, luscious paragraph filled with line breaks which read like poetry where Laura reflects: “Then, think of our bodies / Sweet boneyards inviting trouble / Our breath sour / Our hair teased / We didn’t look like much but we tried.” In this profound and dazzling story, Berman focuses the narrative on the students, but the reader can’t help comprehending that perhaps one reason why the narrator treats the reader as someone familiar is that we’re all students of this class in a way, not knowing where life will take us, but also knowing the only thing we can control is the way in which we approach life’s uncertainties—with trepidation or, as the narrator chooses to do, by focusing on the sweet and sublime. —CRAFT
I think it matters that her husband was older. He owned his own house when they met. He also owned a coffee shop on Lattimore. And Mrs. Haverhill, then—to distinguish herself from the other long-necked, loose-sweatered girls in the theology department—had cut her hair short, dyeing it from brown to black and ending up somewhere in between.
Her future husband approached her, glaring and obvious. Her own eyes were sloped in examination of the pastries his coffee shop offered: some pink, some creamed, some natural and sprinkled with cranberries and almond shavings. They were all drizzled in something that looked very much like honey but wasn’t honey. It was a honey-like glaze that came from France and had a terribly difficult-to-pronounce name. Everything was warm and steaming as he put his hand on her shoulder. He asked if she was hungry. He knew she was.
Then they were walking down the aisle of a just-restored church.
What a wedding.
The smell of fresh lacquer drifted up from the pews.
She took his name, Haverhill. It made an hourglass shape in her mouth when she spoke it.
In the field outside the open church doors, daisies and buttercups swayed beneath the hot sun. They honeymooned: Montana, Cuba, New York City. In Times Square her wallet was taken by a girl with quick hands. “Only in New York,” said Mr. Haverhill. Then Mrs. Haverhill took the arm of her new husband and laughed as they turned back in the direction of the hotel, stopping every few blocks to kiss and touch as soft sounds of night traffic fell in from the boulevards.
Without her wallet, Mrs. Haverhill’s husband vouched to get her on the airplane home.
In the spring, in overalls, she painted their house.
She finished school. She would become an educator.
Her hair grew gentle in the daylight.
Had no children.
And couldn’t have children.
Something was incompatible. Bad.
Not the marriage but her body—it didn’t grow things.
She had always imagined herself a mother so fully, the fact she would not be gave her an overwhelming sense that something terribly wrong had happened and would continue to happen. On a Monday she called the survey office in the town where she grew up and demanded they release to her all documents (sealed and unsealed) pertaining to mineral concentrate, pH balance, and radioactive runoff in her county. She cried in the hallway and Mr. Haverhill made his stuffed clams to calm her down.
They committed themselves to the community.
Spending their money on pails of strawberries, white squash, and raffle tickets.
They evangelized farm-to-table eating to their uninterested relatives.
Mr. Haverhill’s coffee shop sponsored the high school bowling team.
They shopped at the smallest stores for organic toothpaste, soaps, and other sundries.
Of course, there was the flea market where pennies, incused with hunting dogs and mountain ranges, were stretched like chewing gum. Mrs. Haverhill bought pewter bookends sculpted into the likenesses of the first and fifteenth presidents. She bought Farah slacks from a woman wearing an extension-cord belt. Bought jars of Provence honey. She even tried once more to have a baby. African roots ground into drinkable teas and earthen poultices that made the skin on her belly button tight and red when applied. The man at the botanica stand made no promises, but she detected hope—something like hope—in the lines between his eyebrows as he handed her the cellophane bag. She walked home switching the bag between hands every block or so. It was heavy. Heavy with the weight of possibility.
Still though, no child.
And when nothing came, she stopped wearing her contacts and took to the wire-rimmed glasses she’d worn in lecture halls and at the carrel desks in the college library. They made her look older. And she was older. Older than she’d been.
Then older to the world too.
Older in the stores.
Older in the park.
Older in the Blockbuster.
And then, of course, she was our teacher.
Which is all important to know, I think.
Years later, when Mrs. Haverhill and I would talk our long, slow talks, making our way through the winding park, moving gently across the concrete slabs like pieces on a game board, she would insist her life before becoming our teacher seemed like something only dreamt. “I remember so little about the time before all of you,” she would say, easing up toward the base of a pine tree. And from there it always felt like she had more to tell me but never did, choosing instead to look up, letting whatever sunlight was able to dodge the tree’s shade fall over her face and burn bright against her skin. Whenever she did this, I always joked that she looked as though she’d contracted some type of new, shiny disease.
We’d known each other for a year and two weeks when Lorena Espino was marked absent that September morning. There were twenty-one of us in Mrs. Haverhill’s second-grade class, so a single missing student would create a pause in the room, a change in the temperature. I did not feel this, of course. No. If I had been more attuned—less interested in binder stickers, snap bracelets, and a two-story bright-orange rambler we drove by that morning on my way to school that my mother deemed The Carrot House—I maybe would have felt the coolness of Lorena’s missing body. But I didn’t. Couldn’t have.
What I do remember from that morning was the fog, slick above the playground; the forest preserve sign that hung above Mrs. Haverhill’s head as she spoke; the ThunderCats sticker on Lucy’s three-ring binder, shimmering with a glass-like radiance; and then the class phone ringing and the flow of Mrs. Haverhill’s dress as she walked to her desk. I remember the silent alarm of her voice as the news unfolded that Lorena had passed; the defeat of her body as she fell to the carpet; her whimpers; the stifled cries that followed; and the Scooby Doo’s Adventure that played in the darkened classroom as we waited for our parents to arrive.
I didn’t know then that it was possible for things to die.
Nor did I know what pneumonia was, or that it could be caught on an early autumn night after hot-tubbing with your grandparents at their condo.
There was so much about the world I didn’t understand; I certainly had no idea what to do with my hands, so I kept them down at my legs like a soldier. And I kept them that way the entire morning at the cemetery. And during the slideshow in the auditorium. And standing in a broken circle beside the jungle gym—our shiny black shoes looking like lost Lamborghinis above the cedar woodchips—as our parents stood at the far end of the basketball courts, talking grief strategies with the school counselors.
I was acting shocked, I think.
Performing the performance of grief.
We were all doing the same slumped-shoulder routine.
Even Ben Bronson, with his twitchy arms, stood almost still.
It was an act. Our act.
All of us sullen. Hurt out there on the playground.
Our eyes hung in the same direction, toward the horizon. A dark sky. Two separate hemispheres, each with its own set of clouds and colors. A pair of loons flapping against the up-ticked wind. Maybe they were herons. Seagulls. I remember trying to remember. The strange pain in my stomach. Colby White as he loosened his tie and bent over to pull a blade of grass from his black laces. All those poppy blossoms like little skeletons across the open face of the playground. And Lucy and Olivia starting to cry. And the wind. And my wax-paper eyes. And my too-tight ponytail. And the feeling of loss shingling itself to my heart for the first time.
Lucy 7 / Olivia 7 / Abbie 8
It’s important I tell you the worst parts because they matter the most.
But man, at what point did we deserve a break?
I feel we did.
I feel we do.
I felt we did then, staring into three identical caskets, watching Mrs. Haverhill collapse into the arms of her silver-haired husband. She looked to me the way the women in the park looked after their tents were taken down by the police. “Please,” she cried. Please, please, please. My velvet dress had not been washed in the three weeks since Lorena Espino’s funeral. The high school choir sang in the parking lot of Babel’s Funeral Home. Green Day. A Celine Dion song too. Mason and some of the other athletic boys in the class formed a human pyramid in front of the caskets. Why and whose idea this was (my thinking was some of the parents thought: these kids deserve to have some kid fun) is still confusing. Also, still unknowable, was what exactly to do with my hands as the young priest explained forgiveness to us. If there is a higher power, and this higher power was able to discern who is good and who is bad, why are the good so often punished? The bad free to be bad? Even exalted. Why was Mason allowed to be at the top of the pyramid without breaking an arm? What was the plan? Sending a hopelessly drunk driver to plow into the side of a sedan holding three young, pink bodies running late for soccer practice? Why is the best ThunderCat’s sticker I’d ever seen on the binder of a dead girl? Why? Why is that?
I drank my orange juice.
My mother took my hand without looking at me, she made sure I was close.
She’d begun talking to another parent.
It’s just too much, I heard people say in those low, lumbered tones you find people saying things at funerals. So sad, so sad.
I shook my hand free and slyly made my way through the crowded parking lot.
In the corner of the lot, Ben Bronson was attempting a magic trick for some fifth graders from his Penn Field Kit. Missing his smoke snaps and rubber dove, he never really stood a chance. They were laughing at him. Laughing at all of us but with some degree of pity. And that’s when I realized, looking around at all the unsteady people, what their despondence was really all about. They weren’t crying for Lucy or Olivia or Abby; not crying for the girls’ parents or Mrs. Haverhill being helped by the funeral director and her husband into the passenger seat of their Chrysler; no, they were broken up for those of us in Mrs. Haverhill’s second-grade class who were still alive. It’s a look that even then I seemed to understand. A look like: we’d taken a number from the deli counter.
Like we were buffalo headed for the cliff’s edge.
It’s the look now that my son gives me when bedtime is imminent even with no clocks in the room. He can still feel the tick of his bedtime approaching.
That was the look on the faces of the mourners at the girls’ funeral that morning.
My mother called my name from somewhere behind me.
I heard from my father too.
But I was already headed to the far end of the lot.
Known for my good listening and clean bedroom, I rarely did not come when summoned. They must’ve known—my parents—known that I needed space as I headed east toward the woods and into a field with yellow grass and smooth rocks. Headed to where the boys from the pyramid had begun a game of tug-of-war with the older kids. And I wondered. Was wondering? Wondering if? Could I play? If there was a God way up there, could I please play?
My father wore a green T-shirt.
My mother squinted her eyes as we sat at the kitchen table, her knuckles white as she willed my hair tightly into its funeral braids.
Mikey had slipped and fallen off his roof while helping his brother hang the Christmas lights. His brother Milo then had to be put on psychiatric hold after he attempted to swallow all the pills in the family medicine cabinet. He blamed himself. He blamed the ice on the roof. He blamed himself and the ice and Mrs. Haverhill for Mikey falling.
The procession took us across town.
Milo sobbed while he drove his Tacoma behind the hearse. It was a booming and screaming and beautiful red truck, as loud as it was bright, black smoke rising from its tailpipe as though the truck were holding a Roman conclave within its engine.
“Seriously,” my mother whispered the way she would when something was rude or inappropriate during church. She took a deep breath and pressed her thumbs into the stiff muscles on her shoulders. “That’s a terrible and sad noise.”
My father smiled. He slowed the car to a crawl as we approached the mausoleums.
Mikey’s funeral was quick, kind, and polite.
I tapped all my fingertips together and counted backward from a hundred.
“Let’s go,” said my mother.
As we drove from the cemetery I could see Mrs. Haverhill up on the dirty hillside, her ankles deep in the hemlock. She was sitting in one of those folding chairs that someone might take camping or to a baseball game. Maybe she had binoculars. Maybe. It doesn’t matter. What I’m certain of was that she was smoking. I couldn’t see the cigarette, but I could see the smoke rising up, up, up toward the dizzying summer sun.
We got the call at home, of course. My mother shielded my eyes for some reason as she talked to Amanda Lancelet’s mother on the telephone. It was Connor. Some of the other parents had begun the great American experiment of homeschooling. It didn’t matter. Whatever had begun seemed to have a determination that could not be escaped. All of us who had been in Mrs. Haverhill’s class sat with our backs a little straighter, our jaws a little tighter. Sarah Klikunis had begun to lose her hair from the stress. There were stories in the national papers. Channel Six ran a feature report. There was an FBI message on our home answering machine. They had questions. And more questions. It was everything you’d expect. But there were no answers. None. And all that could be said for certain was that we sat in that classroom with those other children, with our friends, with Mrs. Haverhill gently looping her name—a heart dotting the i—in blackboard cursive, her long pale fingers setting the chalk down silently atop the front desk blotter. And because that was the only thing that could be said for certain, people did what people do. There were stories about the occult. About witchcraft. Stories wherein we were a failed program. Stories about how we’d been infiltrated by some otherworldly entities. And. Well, no one had it worse than Mrs. Haverhill.
She left her job at the school.
Sometimes I would see her in her husband’s coffee shop when my parents took me in for a muffin. Or I’d see her in the park feeding the ducks on a cloudy day. She took to wearing one of those “I-♥-New-York” T-shirts almost always. Her hair grew long and wild. Rumors spread through our town, our city. A six-foot wooden cross was found on the steps of the capitol building, painted in our school colors of blue and gold. Word was that it must’ve been Mrs. Haverhill, finally having fallen off the deep end. Soon after, more odd memorials began popping up without anyone taking credit (or blame). Lorena Espino’s parents found a finger painting she’d done in art class pinned to their front door on the day that would’ve been Lorena’s eleventh birthday. Mikey’s brother Milo found twelve boxes of used Christmas lights in the flatbed of his beautiful truck after work, a plastic Santa Claus too. But the strangest: the teddy bears found on the morning of the last school day of that year, each written—in what another teacher noted as an exact match to Mrs. Haverhill’s handwriting—with the names of her dead students in blue Sharpie across their furred bellies. The teddy bears were left in the patch of grass out in front of the school sign.
A custodian went out with an empty box and took them away.
And with all that—all of that—what I remember most about Conner’s passing was me and my mother that night in the department store. The back of the Macy’s on Point Street. The clicking of the overhead lights as they turned off, one after another. How my mother was trying to keep her hands from shaking. How she kept smiling. And smiling. Willing herself, for me I suppose, into some half state of composure. I told her I couldn’t decide between the blue and the white.
“Get them both,” she said. Her eyes were red but not from crying. “Two bras. It makes sense to me, yes! Two is just about right for a girl your age. And you’ll need more as you get old…older.”
Mrs. Haverhill’s Second-Grade Class
Me. Justin. Mikey. Josh. Lucy. Logan. Tommy. Sarah. Mason. Lorena. Amanda. Jerome. Ben. Alex. Kimberley. Travis. Alex F. Olivia. Abbie. Dylan. Connor.
We’d become a story.
Mrs. Haverhill’s Second-Grade Class
Me. Justin. Mikey. Josh. Lucy. Logan. Tommy. Sarah. Mason. Lorena. Amanda. Jerome. Ben. Alex. Kimberley. Colby. Alex F. Olivia. Abbie. Dylan. Connor.
I was in a phase. A punker. Smoking joints with a guy my friend Jasmine was hooking up with. I was beautiful then but trying hard not to be. A swollen nose ring. My mouth always filled with vinegar and smoke and hard candy. I’d finally found something to do with my hands: keeping them constantly buried in the pockets of my war jacket, imagining my fingers wrapped around the grip of an imaginary black gun.
Come summer I swam in the deep end of the pool, shouting my burial wishes six feet below the water’s surface. Jasmine would sit with her mouth agape, asking me to explain what going to so many funerals was like. She asked me if Mrs. Haverhill was a witch and I pretended not to hear her.
I did a lot of pretending back then when people would ask me questions about Mrs. Haverhill. Was she crazy? Cursed? I would just turn my head away and look at my phone. I had my own questions. Daily, I would ask Jasmine about men. And tried hard to dream about the things she told me, conjuring men who could kiss me, fuck me, save me from what was certainly coming—or, if not save me, at least be there with me at the very end. But the men, the men were never there. My dreams then were exclusively of death: attack dogs chewing my legs, masked killers, wasp-like things with an appetite for human blood.
My father met a woman at the car wash.
In the fall I worked the Halloween hayride.
Yellow houses glowed beyond the shrubs.
Everything felt right.
And I think I thought, for a minute there, I might’ve had a shot. Four years with no deaths: the aberration had passed. There was a time after Sarah died when I imagined the things I did and the thoughts I thought had something to do with whether I would live or die. Sometimes I would hold my hands over my mouth to keep bad things from coming out. I wouldn’t breathe until the minute hand on the clock changed over. I stopped looking in the mirror when I washed my hands. Most of the therapists I went to agreed that this probably wasn’t healthy or changing my odds of survival, but they understood the addiction to manners and clear patterns. I was saving us all, I felt.
One day I forgot to not look in the mirror when I was brushing my teeth and…nothing happened. A week later I called a kid who wouldn’t stop throwing rocks off the back of the hayride a “fucker.” And nothing. Nobody got hurt. We were okay.
Soon, I fell into a flow: no longer a ponytailed girl kicking against the current. I swam in the lake and jumped off the big orange bridge. I took my parents’ car out for a joyride and shoplifted a new belt. Everything I wanted, it all felt safe somehow.
It really did.
My appetite for being alive and staying alive had seen me through.
I pierced my belly button and thought it looked cute.
I bought a skateboard and used my father’s dog to propel my adventures.
Then Jasmine’s parents bought her a car and my skateboard sat in the back window.
I was in the clear.
All of us from Mrs. Haverhill’s second-grade class were in the clear.
So, like so many other kids, we were spending our nights up on Dern Hill.
On Dern Hill: Think of boys touching girls / Think of girls texting the boys in their cellphones, “Thank you so much for everything,” because they haven’t learned that, Thank you and I’m sorry are interchangeable when it comes to sex / Think of the night turning slowly toward dawn / Of us, up in the ramparts watching the city glow / Byway lights stretching all the way to the airport / The hollering / Hooting / Then, think of our bodies / Sweet boneyards inviting trouble / Our breath sour / Our hair teased / We didn’t look like much but we tried / We tried to be much / A lot / Almost too much / And it was like that / Out there on Dern Hill.
On Dern Hill that night: Jasmine’s eyes were painted like the underside of a butterfly’s wings. She turned around and said, “Your boyfriend’s here.” I stumbled out of the car, rehearsing what I’d say if the moment arose. Something like, I’m not yours. It’s just your turn. Then I’d take him somewhere dark and we’d do what people do in the dark.
I went to where the drinks were and poured something clear into a clear cup. I downed the shot and rolled my head on my shoulders. It was a heavy night, hot. The crickets were practicing self-talk in the tall grass, repeating over and over like the noise machines they sold at the smoke shop. “He’s right over there,” Jasmine said.
I decided to accidentally run into the boy by the beer pong table. He was flipping his lighter.
“Whoops,” I said. The boy smiled; even though he didn’t always act like it, he was a nice boy. Weird and nice. And—my gosh—was he a pretty thing. He had these eyes that were sad and brown and lucky all at the same time; eyes like an army dog with cheeks that folded in like the fancy cotillion napkins. He had pimples but not the bad kind and as usual his hair had too much going on but in the perfect too-much-hair-going-on type of way.
It sat unmoved by the breeze.
Later that summer we’ll have sex for the first time in his bedroom.
But that’s later.
On that night the boy’s smile was soft.
“For Ben.” The words came out serious as the boy held his drink toward the moon.
“For Ben.” “For Ben.” “For Ben.”
A chant began: Ben! Ben! Ben! Benny Boy!
Of course, I had spent that day with Jasmine by the river. And that night, right then, I did not know what so many on Dern Hill already did: that Ben Bronson, with his twitchy arms and incomplete magic kit, had hung himself in his grandmother’s garage.
“Ben.” I said his name like a question.
A warmth took my throat.
I wanted to cry but instead ran to the cliffs that overlooked our city. I stared at the courthouse lawn way down below, cupping my hands over my mouth. Then I held my breath and waited for my heart to slow.
Back on the hit list.
I could feel it.
I turned my head up at the blank sky like that day so long ago on the playground.
Then I walked away from the city, back toward the woods on the other side of Dern Hill. Soon, I was in the dark. The way dark. And that felt right. I placed my hand against the rough skin of a pine tree and stood there for a while until the boy with sad eyes tapped me on the shoulder.
“Fuck,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Big yes,” he said.
Then I bent down onto my knees.
I could feel myself being lifted from my body.
All at once: I was watching us.
Seeing the boy and me.
Seeing me as I took the lighter from his hand.
I was doing something I should not have done.
Reconvened in my body: standing still, but free to make the wrong choice, I backed away from the boy and started burning my hair with the little flame from his lighter. The smell alarmed the boy. He came toward me, his eyes widening, his smile having fallen away.
He pretended to scratch the bridge of his nose as he approached.
“Stop,” he mouthed but didn’t say, then he pulled his hands from his face and began reaching for my wrists. It was right then that something snapped in the hushed dark; a cracking of fire; a crackling of people. I looked away, but only for a moment.
But the boy.
Wow, the boy was fast. Just as quick as I was burning my edges, the boy was holding the lighter, spinning it between his index and pointer finger. I bent over again and attempted to bite his arm, his hand.
He yanked back. “Whoops,” he said. Then the boy who will take my virginity shuffled in the dark for a moment. Before turning out from the shadows to reveal a hunting knife. “Here,” he said, in this voice that someone might use if they were giving a baby a new type of food for the very first time. “You’ll stink up the party if you burn yourself to death.”
The blade was shiny in the dark.
The boy again shuffled his feet, smiling. But this time it was some type of new I’m-sorry-your-friend-killed-himself kind of smile. And that felt right between us. I never was going to use it—his knife—we both knew that, but right then it felt so good to have in my hand. Its weight: like that of a newborn child. Or, a rotting cantaloupe. And its handle was rough and angry and brave.
Really, really brave.
And I knew then what Ben had been thinking when he climbed onto the hood of his grandmother’s Volvo and laced the rope through the metal fastener of the fire sprinkler.
He was thinking of his freedom.
And he was brave enough to reach out and take it.
“Thank you,” I said, and then I pressed the blade against my stomach like a Holy Woman.
My eyes closed.
And with my eyes closed I could only see one thing: Mrs. Haverhill. I could see her sitting at her desk, her hair wild, her body thin and failing, as she called on somebody close to me to answer a question I’d barely heard her ask. Then I saw her driving the long way home, not because she didn’t want to get home to Mr. Haverhill, but quite the opposite—some days she took the long way home just to formulate the very best way to tell him about the very best parts of her day. And finally, with a knife to my stomach, I saw my teacher walking into the classroom door donning full astronaut regalia on the first Monday of “Space Week.”
I told the boy what it was I was seeing with my eyes still closed. “The helmet was three times the size of her head,” I said. “Then she started singing ‘Space Oddity’ by Bowie.”
The boy laughed again. Then he didn’t.
My arms started to shake, so with both hands I tightened my grip on the handle like it was a wild animal. Sloppy and mud covered. A little too tight for fear the knife might grow spooked from the rise and fall of my chest. And it might jump away from me. Scared. And. Well.
Then I just dropped the knife.
And the knife just made a thud sound.
After which the boy came and held me. And I stood still in his arms and sang the part of “Space Oddity” that Mrs. Haverhill had sung. And when I was done singing I wiped my nose against the boy’s shirt and made him drive me all the way home.
Betty Haverhill 68
Mrs. Haverhill’s Second-Grade Class
Me. Justin. Mikey. Josh. Lucy. Logan. Tommy. Sarah. Mason. Lorena. Amanda. Jerome. Ben. Alex. Kimberley. Colby. Alex F. Olivia. Abbie. Dylan. Connor.
It was after graduate school when I reconnected with Mrs. Haverhill. We met in a park and watched a pond ripple beneath the weight of some birds; she pointed at the bright-yellow tail of a waxwing as it lifted off from a nearby tree. On a park bench she explained to me that she’d always taken great interest in those of us who’d survived, keeping tabs on us as best she could as we moved into our adult lives. Sometimes we drank tea together in the cemetery. Sometimes we walked along the river’s edge. At the bowling alley I asked her if she’d left the teddy bears, the cross, the Christmas lights way back when. She just smiled. Said nothing. And looked to the bank of screens that held the bowlers’ scores, reading the names of everyone playing that day, and wondering aloud who, if any of them, was on track to bowl a three-hundred.
But it wasn’t only me.
A few of us stayed in contact with her throughout the years. She would come to our weddings. Our holiday parties. Our children’s first communions. Always sitting in the back, small and old, hands folded in gentle contrition. She didn’t want to bother us. She just wanted to keep us close. In fact, it was Mason Straus—now a manager at Computer Plus—who called me and broke the news. My heart was beating fast as he spoke. I was sweating. Imagine: me hunched over the island. My husband took my hand. My eyes shrank against the morning sun bouncing up from the kitchen tile. Out the window, on the deck, the birdfeeder spun slowly. My baby began to cry.
Twenty-nine days before her death, on the day my son was born, she called my hospital room and said, “Laura Nicolette, did you go and have a baby right under my nose?”
And I told her I did.
And she told me to oil his feet every day for the first two months.
She told me to keep his feet as soft as possible because, as I knew well, the hard stuff would come soon enough. Then, as I looped the phone line between my fingers and planted my lips gently against the forehead of my newborn son, she began telling me the story of herself as a young woman, and the story of her husband, who’d owned a coffee shop that had since closed and become a battery store and then a Mexican restaurant. She laughed. I laughed.
She told me that in New York you must watch your wallet.
That time-outs are overrated.
And that most of the time, for her, a kiss was better than sex.
Then she laughed once more, quietly, like all the joking was over.
A tiny laugh.
I could hear the gentle chatter of a television somewhere behind her.
She had something.
Something more to say.
I could tell in her soft breathing.
But instead, she just repeated, “Every day for two months. Olive oil. Olive oil. Olive oil.”
SAM BERMAN is a short story writer who lives in Chicago and works at Lake Front Medical with Nancy, Andrew, and Reuben. They are terrific coworkers. He has had work published in Maudlin House, Northwest Review, The Masters Review, D.F.L. Lit, Hobart, Illuminations, The Fourth River, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and recently won Forever Magazine’s Unconventional Love Stories Contest. His work was selected as runner-up in The Kenyon Review’s 2022 Nonfiction Competition as well as shortlisted for the 2022 Halifax Ranch Prize and the ILS Fiction Contest. He has forthcoming work in Expat Press and Rejection Letters, among others. Find Sam on Instagram @sugarcainberman.
Featured image by Engin Akyurt, courtesy of Unsplash.