By Kimberly Ann Southwick
Donna Ferland told us at recess she remembered the Challenger disaster from when she was two. She said it was her first memory, that her mom told her, “Donna, come watch the TV. This is important.”
Every January, we were reminded about this disaster. Our principal, Mr. Lowden, would come onto the crackling loudspeaker around 11:30 am each January 28th, and he would say, “Today, we will have a moment of silence for the lives lost in the Challenger Disaster X amount of years ago.” Fill in the X with a number, depending on how many years it’s been since 1986.
We were all silent. No one laughed or coughed or whispered. We took the Challenger Disaster very seriously.
It was around fourth grade that it went a step further. It took time. Like a technological advance or an avalanche, slow to start and then mostly unstoppable.
Bobby Thompson came in with a scrapbook for show and tell. It was his Grandpop’s from the Navy. He showed us pictures of women in kimonos and men in swimming trunks, flexing their biceps. We all wanted to join the Navy after that show and tell. During recess, puddles were oceans, benches were boats. I was the one holding the invisible camera for my invisible scrapbook that my grandson would bring to his fourth grade show and tell—
Snap, Amanda Belfonte catching a fish. Snap, Chrissy Marino picking her nose. Snap, Bobby Thompson mourning the drowned captain.
After recess, during history, Bobby Thompson raised his hand. He was always raising his hand with outlandish supplements to our teacher’s lessons, especially during history.
“Yes, Bobby?” Mrs. Carlisle said, the patience in her voice wavering.
“I think we should have a moment of silence.”
Mrs. Carlisle was too confused to be overjoyed that Bobby had suggested this, though I’m sure she celebrated it later as a small victory. She paused.
“We have moments of silence for the Challenger victims,” Bobby said defensively.
“Well, yes, Bobby, but that isn’t until January. It’s November.”
Tears welled up in Bobby Thompson’s eyes, but he didn’t let any slide down his face. “My Grandpop died yesterday, though. We have to wait until January?”
Mrs. Carlisle’s acceptance of Bobby’s idea was thorough and instantaneous. We all bowed our heads after she announced, in a solemn voice like Mr. Lowden, a moment of silence for Bobby’s Grandpop. I thought about those pictures as I joined my classmates in staring at the back of our eyelids or the carvings on our desks.
After that, until Christmas break, new moments of silence came every now and again. Donna Ferland’s dog died, followed by Patrick McGee’s Aunt, then Quaron Wilson’s goldfish. We would bow our heads, think of our own pets and their immortality, and then class would continue.
After Christmas Break, we returned to school with an arsenal of deaths. Chrissy Marino wanted to know if we could have a moment of silence for her great grandmother, who used to bake cookies every Christmas for her family, but died when she was 8. Mrs. Carlisle couldn’t resist allowing the moments of silence, maybe grateful for the spaces of calm they created in an otherwise hectic fourth grade day. Other requests came in a rush those first few days back. We would hold the silence and then return, as scheduled, to long division or learning all the counties of New Jersey, alphabetically. Soon came multiple moments of silence in a single day.
January 28th was a Friday that year, and we all bowed our heads for the Challenger victims, but this time it held a special meaning for our class. We didn’t just think of the astronauts and that one teacher that had lost their lives that day, but we thought of Quaron’s goldfish and Chrissy’s great grandmother, and most of all, Bobby Thompson’s Grandpop. The montage that went across my brain, as we sat there for what seemed like a very long moment of silence, was vast.
After the weekend, I decided to stop thinking about the moments of silence for a few weeks because though I would never admit this to anyone, it kind of made me sad, and there were new things coming up. Bobby Thompson began to captain a kickball team at recess instead of his Grandpop’s boat. I was never picked first—or last. Sometimes, people talked about the Navy, but mostly kickball.
We didn’t think anything of President’s Day, we handed out Valentines on Valentine’s Day, and Leap Year was leapt.
Early March, though, though, the silences were back. A local burglar was shot by a police officer by accident. The burglar had reached for what the police officer swore looked like a gun, but turned out to be an inhaler for asthma. Many of us saw this on the six o’clock news and came clambering to class, asking for a moment of silence.
A few days after that, Tonya Harding, in the much publicized trial about her involvement in an assault on Nancy Kerrigan, pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution. She was plastered, tearful, on every front page of every newspaper. Amanda Belfonte suggested we have a moment of silence for her, but Mrs. Carlisle, to our horror and surprise, drew the line there.
We had been in the middle of a particular difficult math problem, which nearly caused my face to be similarly strewn with tears as Ms. Harding’s had appeared in the papers, when Amanda asked. We were stunned. Mrs. Carlisle had never turned down a moment of silence before. She said then that moments of silence were reserved for important deaths, deaths of famous people and deaths of people important to us.
We talked about it during kickball at recess.
“Can she do that?” Amanda asked, aghast that her first request for a moment of silence had been rejected.
“She’s the teacher,” Bobby said slowly.
“But it’s not fair. Tonya Harding is still alive, but she’s sad right now. The least we could do is like give her a moment of silence!” Amanda kicked the dirt.
“God, it’s like you’re in love with her or something,” Patrick said.
Bobby told Patrick to shove it, and we forgot the conversation to an intense game of kickball. Bobby’s team won. Bobby’s team almost always won. Luckily, he had picked me that day, sort of close to the end but not quite.
Lining up to go inside, Bobby spoke to Amanda loud enough voice for most of us to hear. “We’ll get Tonya that moment of silence. Just wait for my cue.” His words became a repeated murmur of “wait for Bobby’s cue”. And before the aide signaled us inside, we heard the other fourth grade class buzzing. The students in the back of both lines caught one another up with a brief rendition of what had been occurring since November, followed by Mrs. Carlisle’s current rejection. They wanted in. Yolanda Cross, the only girl in the fourth grade taller than any of the boys, said that Bobby needed to figure a way to let them know, too. They needed a cue.
The aides called our class twice before the line-leader heard, and we filed inside dutifully, still whispering.
Mrs. Carlisle got about halfway through a lesson discussing Buddhism when Bobby Thompson rose from his seat and went over to the pencil sharpener, where the wooden boat that we used as the bathroom pass hung from its nail in the wall. He left. Mrs. Carlisle didn’t notice our entire attention shift completely from meditation to the sound of his steps in the hallway. She kept talking, using the slide projector to show us pictures of resplendent Japanese temples.
When Bobby came back, he walked to the back of the room around all of the desks to get back to his, a route unheard of. Before he went down the row to his desk , he knocked loudly on the back wall, a thin divider between our classroom and the other fourth grade class. Mrs. Carlisle looked away from Okinawa to Bobby as he returned to his seat.
“Is everything okay, Bobby?”
Bobby looked at Amanda. Amanda looked at Bobby. Mrs. Carlisle looked at Amanda.
“Today, we will have a moment of silence– for Tonya Harding,” Amanda said softly. We all bowed our heads. Mrs. Carlisle peered out the window.
* * *
I remember summers better than school years. I remember beach vacations that lasted a day better than entire weeks of geology, grammar, or greatest common factors. I remember collecting caterpillars in a big plastic bin my Mom used to ice sodas during Fourth of July parties. And I remember the horrific discovery that Mom had drowned them all with a hose.
“What were you planning on doing with them!”
“They were gonna turn to butterflies!” I cried.
“Those kinds of caterpillars don’t turn into butterflies.”
And that was that.
She ate on her recliner in front of the television, but Doug, Tommy, and I ate in the kitchen.
“We’re going to have a moment of silence,” I said firmly.
“We are? No we’re not.” Tommy began babbling, not loudly but incoherently, in a language he had just invented that should’ve been named Annoy-ese—or forgotten and never spoken by anyone, human or otherwise, again–either way.
“Tommy!” Doug said sharply.
Tommy looked at Doug and hissed, “yessssssssss…sssssss..sssssss?” dragging out the esses endlessly so that he never stopped making a noise.
“Why are you always so mean to Izzy?”
“She makes me dizzy, little Izzy! I’m not mean—I’m clean!”
Tommy decisively chomped down on a handful of green beans after his impromptu poem.
“Tonight, we will have a moment of silence for the hundreds of caterpillars mur-“
The babbling started again coming from Tommy’s direction. Doug was ready for him and knocked his knuckle with a knife. Tommy howled for a moment, then shoved his fingers in his mouth.
I continued, “…caterpillars who were murdered unfairly. By drowning. Please be silent.”
I bowed my head. Doug following suit. Tommy unhappily sucked his fingers.
Fifth grade was easier than fourth grade. Long division now came as second nature as math involved more shapes than anything else. We had new teachers and a different mix of classmates. No one talked about the silences again now that we were fifth graders. That was baby stuff.
Bobby Thompson, no matter how much my approval rating of him waxed or waned, was always somehow in my class. We had Mr. Green for fifth grade, and Bobby met his match in Yolanda Cross. She could make an off-topic question about something that interested her seem relevant in a way that he most likely admired and envied. And that’s how the death of her grandfather came up. We had been talking about rhombuses, and suddenly, Yolanda was solemnly pontificating on her grandfather’s funeral last year. We who had come from Mrs. Carlisle’s class all exchanged glances. A number of us shot Bobby a meaningful look as Yolanda went on about the shape of the coffin, of the hole in the ground, how everyone had tried not to cry, and how that had seemed silly to her. After Mr. Green thought for sure the lesson might proceed, Bobby raised his hand.
“Mr. Green, do you think it would be appropriate to have a moment of silence for Yolanda’s late grandfather?” He asked so wide-eyed, so formally, that even fat Mr. Green could only shrug.
“Can I say a few words about him?” Yolanda piped up.
“Well, that would defeat the purpose of the moment of silence, now wouldn’t it?” Bobby countered.
“But you can at least tell us when he died, so we can think of how much time of moments of silences we’re making up for.”
“Last year, around now. That’s how I thought of it, when Mr. Gree—“
“We will now have a moment of silence, for Yolanda’s dead grandfather,” Bobby interrupted.
“Mort,” she hissed, before bowing her head. To this day, I don’t know if she was speaking French or giving his first name. I thought nothing of it at the time but remember it clearly.
We bowed our heads.
Fifth grade was new shapes and old wars. In late October, someone fired shots at the President’s house. We discussed past assassination attempts. We discussed past assassinations. Amanda or Donna or something and looked up the dates of these assassinations at home that night, and silence was no longer kid stuff.
At recess, we decided that we no longer needed to ask for a moment of silence. Bobby Thompson said that no one on the Challenger asked to be blown up to justify it. Our dodgeball team, momentarily distracted by this revelation, nodded and looked at each other approvingly. I got knocked in the stomach with the ball and keeled over just after this decision was made, so I didn’t hear the end part, when Quaron decided that our silences should not be reserved for our assassinated Presidents, but for all Presidents of this country who had died, on the anniversary of their deaths.
JFK came first. In mute resignation, our fifth grade class refused to answer questions about the Civil War pelted at us by Mr. Green for two whole minutes, heads bowed, thinking of President Kennedy.
We did the same a few days later for Bobby Thompson’s Grandpop, freshly six feet under for a whole year. I saw his eyes shine again but not flow over, big and blue, as I peered sideways from my bowed head. It gave me a funny feeling in my stomach that I thought I might like. Mr. Green called the principal on the speakerphone, who made an announcement to the whole school about class participation right before the bell rang for recess.
The announcement caused a playground conversation with students of other grades who didn’t understand its insinuations. Students from Mr. Green’s class this year and also from Mrs. Carlisle’s class last year informed anyone interested, reminded them about the Challenger, and said that if they have any personal deaths in their families, they should let us know. We were the fifth graders—we ruled the school.
So it spread. We set up a code on the asphalt. The white rocks from behind the too-tall basketball nets drew like chalk. There was code for how many deaths there would be silences for, which grade it came from, and the name of who to talk to in each class about coordinating the moments of silence.
George Washington was the next big one, and I protested, claiming he wasn’t assassinated, only to be knocked in the knee with the dodgeball and called out.
“Jesus, Izzy, pay attention!” Yolanda yelled. She was captain and had picked me somewhere in the middle towards the end.
“We’re not just celebrating the deaths of those Presidents who were murdered, but all of them who’re dead.”
“Oh. That makes sense then.” I felt stupid, left out for not knowing those were the new rules. “Washington is an important one. I’m glad he’s next,” I said to make up for my ignorance.
“But shouldn’t we be mourning, not celebrating?”
“I guess it’s a little of both.”
“It is. We should tell Bobby.”
“You tell Bobby.” Amanda said shortly, and squatted down to pick at the clover between the cracks of asphalt.
So I did. As soon as Yolanda threw him out, I walked to his side of the square.
“You’re right, Izzy. Gee, actually—actually something else just happened.”
“Someone died?” I said horrified.
“Of course someone died, Izzy. People die every day. They put notices in the newspaper about it.”
“Oh, I know. They’re called Obituaries. It was funny, when my grandmother died—“
“When did she die?”
“When I was little.”
“But when? What day?”
“I don’t know, Bobby, I was little.”
“You have to look it up. You have to ask your Mom. These things are important. I bet someone died every day. I bet that there are people’s whose deaths have never been given moments of silence, hundred, thousands, bazillions of people!”
Our conversation now had an audience. Yolanda stood alone with a bored expression on her face, holding the red ball in the center of the square. She threw it at one of the last two people on the other team. It hit Patrick in the face, and he let out a cry.
“A moment of silence for Patrick’s face!” Bobby yelled.
We all began to cheer and then fell silent. The fourth graders playing kickball near us heard the cheer, then the silence, and after a skinny girl swung her leg at the yellow ball and missed, they fell silent, too. We could hear the birds singing, the breeze blowing the leaves off of the trees—we could hear the ants crawling on the asphalt, the clover wheezing, the cicadas humming. And then it seemed as though the cicadas stopped, too. And the birds, if only for a second. Bobby said quietly, without having to yell, that there would be a meeting of all the upper grades tomorrow during recess, a short meeting, and he expected us to attend.
I was so excited for recess the next day, I couldn’t sleep. This magnified my sense of hearing. I heard Mom downstairs with the TV on all night. I heard the heat turning on to keep the house almost warm, then turning off so that my fingers and feet could freeze again no matter how hard I pushed them into the bed. I only heard it when it stopped or started, never noticed it while it was on. I heard Tommy playing Gameboy in the boys’ room and Doug using the bathroom, twice. I heard the boys, once midnight had passed and the moon was so loud it reminded me of a poem she used to read me–I heard the boys creeping down the hall to tap my door, pretending they were the boogieman. Their muffled laughs as they ran back to their room when I said, “hello?” into the night actually made me smile. For a minute, I thought that I must have been growing up. Then, it was morning, and my alarm was the loudest it had ever been.
We were all fidgety during class. Patrick knocked his pencil to the floor three times, and Chrissy Marino asked to be sent to the nurse.
“Why? Are you okay? What’s wrong?” Mr. Green was a bit anxious for his age and stature, maybe even paranoid, especially when it came to anyone feeling ill.
“I don’t know,” Chrissy said, “I just… Maybe she can help.”
Chrissy looked dumb, confused—not sick— but he let her go. She was fine during lunch, and we all understood, somehow. We met by the old tires near the woods, next to the kickball field. Bobby Thompson stood on the biggest tire, the one impossible to jump. Yolanda stood on the third biggest tire, her arms crossed. She looked like Bobby’s bodyguard, not speaking a word.
Bobby’s speech was short as promised. We needed to rethink or unthink the moments of silence we’d been having. We needed to understand the depth of our mission. He probably didn’t use such adult words, but everyone was amazed, nodding and looking from him to one another. There was something so honest and heartfelt about what he was saying that it seemed like he was using big words. He repeated what he had said to me yesterday and expounded on it, about the millions of people who were dead, about how it was inhumane that these people were forgotten. We needed to have a moment of silence for every dead human, every extinct dinosaur, and even every star in the sky, which we had just learned weren’t even really stars, but explosions of light— the stars we saw were, in essence, deceased stars. We had to mourn them, the planets they once had given life to that were now dark and dead.
When his speech was done, we looked around. We stood from our sitting or kneeling positions. The fourth graders went to the kickball field; fifth graders went to the dodgeball square. Yolanda and Bobby picked us all by tapping our shoulders. Bobby picked me somewhere in the middle, more towards the beginning than the end this time. I got that fuzzy feeling again. I liked it for longer; then I made it go away.
We lined up silently after the aides’ whistles. They looked at us, puzzled—delighted, but suspicious. We filed into the school silently, the halls echoing with our sneakered footsteps.
I always walked home alone, now that Tommy was in middle school. I usually had a lot of thoughts, too many thoughts, swimming around my head. That day, I walked home and met every songbird’s eye, stared longingly at huge, bare oaks. I wished for their longevity, their prudent speechlessness.
I can’t say if I didn’t talk that night at all, or if I thought that the rules Bobby had set only applied in school. I can say that Doug and Tommy barely noticed. I never spoke much at dinner anyway. Mom barely spoke at all except to tell us dinner was ready and answer any questions we might have about its contents. I slept more easily that night, tuning in my radio to a crackle between stations, the static reminding me of Mr. Lowden on the loudspeaker, right before he spoke.
Bobby Thompson wasn’t in school the next day. There were whispers. Anyone who dare speak out loud with the whole of his or her voice was shot a dirty look. We forgave the second and first graders who didn’t know any better. We barely had any contact with the Kindergarteners. We were mostly quiet. Whenever I had the urge to speak, I thought of Martha Washington or Molly Pitcher. I thought, she could have died today, and no one really knows. I wondered where Martha Washington was buried. I wondered who I was in a past life. Maybe Yolanda was Molly Pitcher and Donna Ferland was Abigail Adams. Maybe I was Martha Washington. My husband had never told a lie. There was no loudspeakered moment of silence for our past selves.
The teachers must have had their own meeting because they had adopted a way to deal with this—to ignore it and just keep lecturing. Maybe I learned more those days, maybe less. But after the buzz about Bobby’s absence died down, we were mum again. Four days straight, none of us spoke a word at school that I remember. Walking home, I found a larger, quieter tree I wanted to be. I lifted my arms in practice, as if they’d grow to branches, and there I would stand, surrounded by chattering sparrows, looking down on toddlers babbling a secret language. I would sway imperceptibly in the slight breeze, massive and mute. Mom didn’t notice that I was arriving home later and later after school. She sat in her recliner, watching the court shows. I was glad for it.
Over the weekend, Doug and Tommy did catch on to my silence. They teased me, when not too involved with their own important, teenage lives, about everything, and my lack of responses threw them off. That became a game in itself, trying to get me to react. I stared straight ahead at the maple in our yard, thinking Martha Washington, Molly Pitcher, Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Molly Pitcher, he never told a lie, he never told a lie.
The clatter of students Monday at school outside before school began was arguably wordier than it had been the previous week. Panic in our eyes, many of us fifth graders wanted to remain silent for Bobby’s return. We wanted him to see we’d lived up to his speech, his dream. We soon discovered it wasn’t us. Not the fifth, fourth or even the third graders, our weakest link. The chatter was louder than usual amongst the younger grades, especially the second graders. We lined up and filed into school. We listened to Mr. Green until the lunch bell. Mrs. Carlisle had an ear-to-ear smile on her way into the teachers’ lounge. At lunch, I saw Chrissy Marino whispering to Amanda Belfonte. I knew something was up. They were some of the most severe enforcers of the extended mourning period. I sent them nose wiggles and quiet vibes, but their heads remained bowed in a heated whispering session. I looked around.
Bobby was back the next day, looking drawn and pale. I figured he must have been sick. We stayed strong and silent, proud. He barely could meet our eyes. At lunch, the whisper chain had grown. And at recess, it was Yolanda Cross who used her outside voice to make an accusation that rang more like an announcement.
“Bobby Thompson, you’re a bit fat liar.”
The alarm was palpable. What had he done? Had he taken the five days off of school so that he could talk and talk and talk and talk and talk it all out of him and that’s why he looked so pale, from talking so long? Not him!
“Bobby, why don’t you tell us all, huh? We already know. Belinda already told.”
Belinda was his sister in the second grade. I had been her safety when she was in Kindergarten.
“Belinda’s just a little girl,” Bobby said under his breath, kicking the asphalt. He walked over to the tires. He sat on the second to largest tire. The rest of us scattered around the playground. I played a mostly quiet game of foursquare for the rest of recess. I got to be Queen before being bounced out.
When we lined up at the bell, the third graders were all achatter. I tried to listen, to overhear, but no one was being clear. Some of the fourth graders were also talking and laughing. I was somewhere between afraid and furious. What had he done! Maybe Yolanda was the liar! Maybe she was tired of how everyone listened to him.
I went to the bathroom twice that afternoon, and the second time, I ran into Amanda. She looked at me gravely. She opened her mouth. I hunched my shoulders, and my mouth became a small O of protest.
“It’s okay!” she exclaimed quickly and quietly, “but we can’t trust him.”
Enigmatically, she left the bathroom. I washed my hands. I sat in my favorite stall, seat cover down, for probably too long, reading the scratched names in the paint.
Bobby Thompson never came clean. He sulked until Christmas break, when most of us, had we not already known, found him out. Doug was the one who told me, without realizing.
“Did you hear about Mr. Thompson?”
My ears perked up. I almost said, “What?” but I didn’t. I listened, turning my eyes to my soup.
“Who cares. Who cares. Who cares,” Tommy droned.
“You suck, Tommy.”
“Shut it, Dougie.”
“I want to hear!” I said quietly, excitedly.
The boys turned and looked at me.
“Tell me about Mr. Thompson.”
“Oh? Tell us why—“
“Tell me about Mr. Thompson! Or I’ll tell her how you always sneaking around at night knocking on my door!” I threatened.
“Okay, okay okay okay!” Tommy said, “Dougie. Tell her.”
“Don’t call me Dougie, asshole.”
“Don’t call me asshole, Dougie.”
“I’m going to kill you in your sleep.”
And then I shouted, ”TELL ME ABOUT MR. THOMPSON!”
She muted the television in the other room. She didn’t say anything. I glared. I ate a bite of vegetable casserole. I chewed slowly, but angrily. The television came back on.
“It’s nothing, really. How do you even know who I’m talking about?”
“Does he have a son? And a daughter? Named Belinda? Bobby?”
“Um. I think those are his grandkids. They go to your school?”
“Who’s Mr. Thompson?” Tommy asked.
I nodded to answer Doug’s question, but he wasn’t even looking at me. He was staring at the ceiling with closed eyes, in annoyance.
“The two of you are impossible. The story sucks now. You guys ruined it, but whatever. Mr. Thompson is the principal at PHS—or was. He died really unexpectedly last week. Everyone at school was saying it was murder. But that’s all been cleared.”
“Oh.” I said. The vegetable casserole didn’t taste so good anymore. I slipped into the den, and sat on the floor next to her recliner. I watched most of an episode of Star Trek: Next Generation. The boys went upstairs after they washed the dishes. They didn’t call me in to help dry.
After Christmas break, everyone spoke again, but quietly at first. We made it all the way to the end of January without any moments of silence. Mrs. Carlisle looked cross in the halls as we skipped past her, giggling, on our way to lunch. Bobby Thompson pretended like nothing had happened, but Quaron sometimes was the other captain picking the dodgeball team, and he and Yolanda even kissed near the fence by the woods. And then it came. The Challenger Disaster. This time, during the fleeting minute that Mr. Lowden asked us to put aside for the Challenger casualties, I didn’t think of their faces, the astronauts, the teacher. Instead, I thought of what it could have been like. All of us, quiet as trees. Our teachers eventually taciturn as well. I thought of all the disasters that could have been prevented. All of the speeches that never would have had to be written. I imagined books of various covers and lengths filled with different amounts of blank pages. I thought of all of the space there would be, all of the empty space, waiting to be filled with silence and sometimes sorrow. Nothing but birdsong.
Kimberly Ann Southwick is the founder and editor in chief of the biannual print literary arts journal Gigantic Sequins. Her poetry has been published in a variety of online and print journals, and her chapbook Efs & Vees is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press this year. She recently moved to Breaux Bridge, LA, to pursue her PhD in English/Creative Writing with a focus in poetry at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. This is her first published short story since her undergraduate years at Emerson College.
Art: “Until” by Sarah O’Brian
Sarah A. O’Brien graduated from Providence College in May 2015, earning her B.A. in Creative Writing and Studio Art, with a concentration in cheap red wine. Sarah’s work has previously appeared in Every Writer’s Every Day Poems, Snapping Twig, The Screech Owl, The Alembic, Copley Hall of Art, and Hunt-Cavanagh Gallery. For more, see her website, www.artworkbysarah.com, or follow her @fluent_SARAcasm.