Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Elaine Fowler Palencia
Elaine Fowler Palencia, of Champaign Illinois, grew up in Kentucky. She is the author of two short story collections, Small Caucasian Woman and Brier Country, and two poetry chapbooks. She has an essay in the latest Bluestem and a story forthcoming in Kestrel. She is the book review editor of Pegasus, the journal of the Kentucky State Poetry Society.
Incident at Sky High
This is one for the archives. It happened a while ago. Did you know Tildy Pritchard? She was a chunky girl with curly brown hair, big brown cow eyes, and, when she first came to Sky High School, not much to say for herself. We thought she seemed nice enough, but shy.
In those days the killer angel of consolidation was flying over eastern Kentucky, its outspread wings darkening the landscape as it gathered small schools into larger institutions and left abandoned one- and two-room buildings strewn about the countryside on the poor patches of soil that local farmers had donated decades before to the cause of education. Sky High was at the top of Seaver Gorge, at the end of a dirt road that became a sluice of soup-bean colored mud when it rained. Getting there was inconvenient, but most families hoped to keep it that way. There is something in hill people that rejects bigness and newness out of hand, something that admires cussedness. Besides, if the school closed, we all knew the community located along Salt Creek would die.
Altogether there were around forty of us in the one-room, eight-grade school, ranged in rows by class. The class being taught at any one time rotated up to the front for the duration of the lesson. That year I was in fourth grade. Because I was a quiet girl and always got my lessons, Mr. Boster sat the new girl next to me and told me to show her the routine. Right away one of the big boys named her Baby Dumpling. Every new student was saddled with an insulting nickname and had to earn the right to have his or her given name reinstated by learning to fit in. So in the beginning, we all felt sorry for Tildy, and it wasn’t just because of “Baby Dumpling.”
Mr. Boster was a wiry old coot, rougher than pig iron, with thick white hair and thicker glasses, who as a young man had kept school on Indian reservations out West. Not much got past him. Every morning on his three-mile walk to school, he looked to replenish his store of hickory limbs. Before he came to Sky High, we had Miss Scott, a flighty twenty-year-old whose idea of discipline was to ask the miscreant (almost always it was a boy) to go out to the woods and pick his own switch. This practice allowed him to ring the switch with a knife so it would break with the first blow across his backside. Mr. Boster supplied his own instruments for administering doses of hickory tea. Despite the obvious disadvantage to us, we respected him for it. In our immature hearts, we knew we needed to be tamed.
Tildy came to live with her grandparents just before school took up that fall, but her story was already known up and down the creek, the whittlers at Fulks Grocery functioning as a library of gossip. When the Pritchards lived in McCay’s Gap, near the Virginia border, Tildy’s mother Annie had gotten involved with a married man and found herself in the family way. Annie had been sent to live with relatives over in Dungannon while she gave birth to Tildy. Her parents soon moved to Salt Creek to take over a family farm but Annie never returned to Kentucky. Neither did she reveal the name of her baby’s father. Now she was working and going to school down in Bristol, Tennessee. She sent Tildy to live with her folks until she could finish a two-year course. So Tildy had several strikes against her: she was new, she was fat, she was smart, and she was a wood’s colt. As I said, this was back in the day, when there was shame.
I’m sorry that I wasn’t as good a friend to Tildy as I might have been, nor did my mother encourage me in that department. We went to a strict church, where a child born out of wedlock was deemed as sinful as its parents. Mama preferred for me to be friends with Ada Tyree, whose father owned the Greenfield Dairy. When Tildy said what she did about Mr. Kessner, I dropped her like a dirty shirt.
We were at recess, playing jacks with some other girls on a slab of concrete next to the small ball ground. The day was hot and sunny. Some of the younger children were paddling their feet in the spring down the hill.
One of the big boys playing basketball saw Tildy blot her sweaty face on her sleeve and yelled , “Hey, boys! I smell fried fatback!”
“We need us some baby dumplings to sop up that redeye gravy!” another one jeered.
“I’m sick of them,” Tildy said. “When my daddy comes, I’m telling. He’ll have them arrested.”
“What daddy?” asked Barbie Fulks.
“Mr. Roy P. Kessner. He’ll be here next week, Mr. Boster said so.”
“You’re crazier’n a bedbug,” Ada declared. Mr. Kessner, the county superintendent, was indeed coming to Sky High for one of his periodic inspections and we were working hard at our lessons in order to show off for him. With school consolidation on everybody’s mind, we wanted to demonstrate that we could learn just as well in our little hilltop school as we could if we were bused into Blue Valley. The handsome Mr. Kessner connected to Baby Dumpling? Impossible. His wife had been a cheerleader for the Blue Valley basketball team that had gone to state and, moreover, she wore a fourteen-carat gold ankle chain.
“Prove it,” said Katie Allison.
“I’ve got a picture at home.”
“Bring it,” said three girls at once.
This happened on a Friday. On Monday morning, as we fourth-graders sat in the back practicing penmanship, Tildy passed a photograph down the row.
It showed a group of high school students standing in a wide, city space with the Washington Monument in the background. Someone had drawn an arrow to a pretty girl in the third row and written Anne Pritchard on the margin. Another arrow pointed to a tall man on the end of the back row. A heart had been drawn above his head. Clearly, though his name had not been added, the man was a younger, thinner version of the superintendent. On the back of the picture was written, McCay’s Gap High School Senior Trip, Washington D.C.
“That doesn’t prove anything,” whispered Barbie.
“He was senior sponsor. He taught civics at McCay,” hissed Tildy, anger rendering her face pasty and coarse.
Whack! went Mr. Boster’s hickory across Tildy’s desk. He had crept up on us.
“Give me that,” he growled, snatching the photograph from Katie Allison.
On Thursday morning Mr. Kessner appeared in the doorway of our school, outlined against the deep blue October sky celebrated in the James Whitcomb Riley poem we had to memorize, along with the Gettysburg Address, in order to graduate from Mr. Boster’s care. We had just taken our seats after saying the Pledge of Allegiance around the flagpole in the schoolyard, including the still-new words “under God,” added to the pledge by President Eisenhower the previous year.
We liked the genial Mr. Kessner. A tanned man with a long, grooved face, he handed out foil-wrapped toffees for right answers and seemed genuinely interested in our progress. He always wore a brown suit and a crisp white shirt set off by a smart tie, and he smelled of cigarettes and Old Spice aftershave. His highly polished wingtip shoes made me feel embarrassed for our scarred wooden floor. His gold college class ring shone like a king’s treasure.
Mr. Boster, clad as usual in a dusty black suit and a wilted white shirt buttoned at the neck, welcomed Mr. Kessner to sit at the teacher’s desk facing the students and observe our recitations. By now, everyone knew about Tildy’s allegation and the photograph, so there was much whispering and elbowing as we got underway.
Usually the classes were taught in order, starting off the morning with the first grade. But that day, knowing Mr. Kessner’s time with us was limited, Mr. Boster announced that after first grade reading lesson, he would skip to sixth grade arithmetic and from there to eighth grade geography, the better to show Mr. Kessner the breadth of our learning.
Tildy’s hand shot up. “Mr. Boster, can I do my book report now?”
“This afternoon,” said Mr. Boster, opening the first grade reader.
“I want to do it now.”
He wheeled and gave her a look hot enough to light kindling. “This afternoon, Tildy.”
Tildy held up her copy book. “I’ve got it all written out.”
Mr. Boster directed his attention to the first graders. “Let’s open our books to page fifteen.”
“Please, Mr. Boster.”
“Tildy Pritchard, go stand in the dunce’s corner! Facing the wall!” snapped Mr. Boster.
As she stalked to the back of the room and took up the position of disgrace, our eyes were all on Mr. Kessner. When Tildy’s full name rang out, his face had stiffened ever so slightly and his shoulders dropped. He coughed into his fist and became interested in opening a small notebook and uncapping his fountain pen. A flush crept up his neck. His behavior gave us two huge pieces of information: He recognized her name, and he didn’t want anybody to know he did.
Five minutes into the reading lesson, Elbert Crouch raised his hand and said, “Mr. Boster? Tildy went out.”
The dunce’s corner was empty. Because of the warm weather, the door, also located at the back of the classroom, was open, as were the windows lining both sides.
From outside came a scream and a big splash.
That could only mean one thing.
Pushing and shoving, we piled outside.
At the edge of the natural spring carved out of the hillside below the ball ground, sat Tildy’s brown lace-up shoes with her anklets neatly folded on top. In the middle of the water the surface shuddered and rolled and mud boiled up in clouds.
We knew the pond shelved quickly to a twelve-foot depth. One winter some fifteen years before, a boy named Tom Ratliffe had fallen through the ice and drowned during recess. They had trolled to twelve feet before they found his body. The story was part of school lore.
The Gulley twins were first in the water with Mr. Boster wading out behind them. Mr. Kessner watched from the school steps.
Randy Gulley dove and was under a long time. He came up gasping, motioned to his brother, and went down again. Billy dove in and when they came up, they had her between them.
With Mr. Boster’s help, they hauled Tildy onto the bank and lay her on her back.
Her face was the grayish white of underwear in the wash, with a startling blue vein running down the middle of her forehead. Her eyes were closed. I felt sick, the way I’d felt coming upon a dead calf in the Higgins’ pasture.
Mr. Boster’s craggy face twisted. He knelt and felt for a pulse, then began pressing on her stomach. Tildy’s body jerked and water leaked from her mouth. After a horrible, blank time, she hiccupped. Color rushed into her face and she vomited down her chin. Our teacher sat Tildy up and mopped her face with his big white handkerchief. Her eyelids fluttered. Then she slumped over on her side, gone again.
“Where’s Mr. Kessner?” he barked. “He can drive her to town, to the clinic.”
Andy Garland said, “Mr. Kessner went and drove off. He said he had to observe over at Plum Grove.” This was a school in the neighboring valley.
“One of you lot run over to Spencers’ and get him to bring his truck,” ordered the teacher.
By the time Mr. Spencer arrived, Tildy was awake again but seemingly in a trance. She would not speak. Mr. Boster dismissed school and rode away with her.
The next day Tildy was not in school. Mr. Boster arrived at the usual time with a bandage wrapped around his right hand and, without comment, ordered us to assemble for the Pledge of Allegiance. Nothing was said of the previous day and our lessons proceeded as usual.
Then came the weekend, during which a strange tale started with the whittlers at Fulks Grocery and spread through the churches on Sunday.
Following his visit to us, Mr. Kessner had indeed spent the afternoon observing at Plum Grove School. On the Bluebank Road as he was driving home at the end of the day, he was stopped and beaten up by unknown assailants to the tune of six stitches on the back of his head, bruised ribs, and a broken finger. He claimed not to have seen his attackers or even to know how many there were. A bloody hickory limb was found at the site of the assault.
When Tildy returned to school the next week, she was Baby Dumpling no more, but an accepted member of Sky High until the end of the school year, when she went back to live with her mother. We never found out exactly what she intended by going in the water. She and Katie Allison were pen pals for a few months but gradually ceased exchanging letters. I do not know what became of her.
At the end of the spring term Mr. Kessner resigned to take a job with his in-laws’ Chevrolet dealership in Illinois. He and his family were never heard of again in these parts. It was rumored that before he left, he turned in a very negative report on Mr. Boster and Sky High School, which figured heavily in its closure that summer. We students were split up and sent to larger elementary and middle schools. Mr. Boster was forced to retire, as he did not have the level of education required to teach in a modern school system. In time Salt Creek lost its post office; so the community is no longer to be found on a map. The abandoned shell of Fulks Grocery is just visible under the blanket of kudzu that is taking over the gorge.
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