Conjunctions:36 Dark Laughter

Kids Who Died at My High School This Year
There was Tara Lee Fenstermacher, whose grandmother dropped the blow-dryer into the bathtub. Tara Lee was a Princess of Feed Corn Pageant hopeful, and her grandmother was trying to save time while Tara Lee shaved her legs. Without her in contention, longtime rival Erin Demeski took home the crown.

     Right around the middle of September the Stockton twins, Kayley and B. F., were in a fatal car accident along with Bryan Kreider and Jonathan “Horse” Thomason, when the Stocktons’ Buick LeSabre smashed into a Ford pickup truck. Bryan was driving and his blood alcohol level tested at five times the legal limit. The principal told the local paper they’d all been honor students.

     In the pickup, sophomore Travis Stevenson and his grandfather, local barber Eluard P. Stevenson, were also killed.

     Mary Pamela Riker mainlined Windex in the shower. She had been diabetic since fifth grade. For a couple of weeks afterward some girls pinned turquoise ribbons on their backpacks. “She loved teal,” the student council president said, and the local paper ran that quote as their headline.

     Stephanie Ziekov was in my driver ed class. She slit her wrists. Stephanie was the fattest of the popular girls, and it was that tension which had made her interesting.

     A slew of copycat suicide attempts followed, but some sophomore named Valerie Reddy was the only one who succeeded.

     Over Christmas break, Orville Lee’s body was found in a plastic trash can, floating in a containment reservoir thirty miles south of town. Orville’s parents operated a Korean restaurant with an all-you-could-eat lunch deal, and had another son named Wilbur. Orville was a sweet kid, well under eighty pounds, always late for school, always grinning at strangers from the attendance office lineup. At first we thought it was an example of the random violence of modern life and feared for our own safety. It came as something of a relief when the local paper reported that he’d been selling stolen automatic weapons off the loading dock of his parents’ restaurant.

     Mousy little Casper Petersen was a hemophiliac. The teachers put on rubber gloves whenever he got a nosebleed. When he died, quite suddenly, dropping to the ground on the baseball diamond while walking laps in adaptive gym, it was because of an enlarged heart. At the assembly after his death, the principal wore a gray suit and called for a moment of silence. Trained counselors, he said, would be in the guidance office all day, for those who felt the need to avail themselves. And plenty did, including all of A.P. Biology.

     “Let’s not be morbid,” the principal said, as he had when he announced each of the previous tragedies. He was skinny as a bone and spoke with a thick Slovakian accent. “We are the living, we have to go on. Casper—like Orville, or Valerie, or Stephanie, or Mary Pamela, or Travis, or Tara Lee—would have wanted it that way.” Mispronouncing Casper’s last name, he said he was an honor student, and that he remembered him particularly because he always smiled and said good morning. He talked about Casper’s accomplishments on the quiz-show team. He told us he loved us. After that, students who wanted counseling could leave to go meet with the team of psychologists the school was keeping on retainer. The rest of us would sit in the auditorium and watch educational films about AIDS prevention.

     “We have had a rash of bad luck this year,” the principal said. “But together, we Fighting Mallards are still the best!” He signaled to the audiovisual booth. The art teacher hit play.

     On the movie screen, a cartoon fish in a fedora told us: You can’t get it from toilet seats. You can’t get it from hugging, or going skateboarding, or borrowing clothes. You can’t get it from swimming pools or holding hands or drug-free fun at the funny money casino in the shopping mall after prom. The little fish’s forehead furrowed, and his tail pounded along with the Top 40 soundtrack: You can get it from intimate contact. Your teacher will instruct you further in that area. You most certainly can get it from contact with other people’s blood. What about kissing? It depends on the kind of kissing.

     They served tuna for lunch.

     Later in the winter, Tim Moyer ate furniture polish. He spread it on wheat toast, possibly, based on the contents of his stomach in the autopsy report. Why? We don’t know.

     In February, Ryan S. Pelekowski, Jr. died of alcohol poisoning, after a party attended by most of the CHHS football team at the home of Marauding Mallard boosters Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Tysone. The parental Tysones were in South Beach at a prosthetics-industry convention at the time, though “Ron,” as he told all his son’s friends to call him, had ordered the kegs before he left. The football team got special counseling from a team of trained professionals and we watched a film on date rape.

     On Presidents’ Day, Jeremy Ryan Greenburg doused himself with gasoline in his garage and lit a match. The local newspaper attributed Jeremy’s death to the disappointingly low PSAT scores he had received the day before. The Greenburgs lived in our neighborhood and had a cocker spaniel and when we took our dog for a walk the next day it got into a barking fight with theirs. Somebody opened the garage door to let it in, and we couldn’t help seeing the scorch marks on the floor of their garage, next to the riding lawnmower.

     “About Jeremy? “ I told my Dad. “He sat next to me in homeroom. It scares me.”

     “That’s natural. It’s a terrible thing.” He pulled me against his chest and hugged me tight, and I hoped the Greenburgs wouldn’t see us out their windows.

     I wanted to explain that yes, it was a terrible thing, but what made it even more terrible was that it had happened to someone in such alphabetical proximity to me. It wasn’t till the fourth letter that our last names diverged. What if God, picking a victim out of the grand celestial yearbook, had moved his finger one photo to the right and nipped off me instead?

     The next month, we heard about the death of beautiful Helen Glock, who had only been sixteen when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Though we had collected twenty barrels of pennies to help pay for her experimental medical treatment, she died anyway in a hospital in another state. We bought a plaque with her airbrushed face on it to hang in the lobby.

     And, though it was never sufficiently documented, there was the bizarre case of Eloise Goldburg, who died (we think) of intestinal blockage. At the time her family hushed things up, insinuating that she suffered from rickets. Later, the autopsy revealed that her stomach was full of small metallic objects, including paperclips, tiny balls of aluminum foil, a Krugerrand her grandmother had given her, some bolts from her bicycle and an escargot fork. She had been a quiet girl with the black eyes of a crow and a hunger for anything shiny. She had consumed her mother’s wedding ring, time and again. A national magazine show tried to run a segment on it, but her parents won an injunction.

     In May, Kara Tillbury was killed. She lived downtown in Crown Heights with her custodial father, and her boyfriend lived out in the sticks. The two of them had somehow figured out that there was a point where their houses were only twelve miles apart. Kara would leave her rowhouse in Crown Heights and walk six miles along the railroad tracks, and her boyfriend would walk six miles the other way, and they’d meet in the middle, in a cropless field. Her father said they liked to look at the stars. One Tuesday, Kara left her house at approximately 10:30 P.M., and when she didn’t reach the field by 1 A.M., her boyfriend panicked. By then, of course, Kara had already been severed by a coaler. Though the engineer did see her, he hadn’t been able to brake in time. The local newspaper praised her wit and her talent as an actress, and her friends left red carnations along the railroad tracks, where they were blackened and blown to bits by passing trains.

     That time, the film we watched in assembly was about gonorrhea, and the entire cast of Bye Bye Birdie fairly keened in the guidance office.

     My mother was scandalized by the idea of letting children walk along railroad tracks on school nights. At breakfast she read selections from the newspaper story aloud, with her own sly, chipper gloss on what Kara and her boyfriend were doing, and her opinion of Kara’s father’s supervisory skills. For the next few weeks my friends and I all got rides to our boyfriends’ houses, as if the thought of a passion so intense that it would make people walk six miles in darkness for a quickie in a field was awesome enough to our postmidlife parents that they became strangely humble, and acquiescent to the brute power of adolescent desire.

     “Promise you’ll use a condom,” my mother whispered in the darkness of her Toyota Camry, the lines of her face lit by the glow of the speed gauge and my boyfriend’s parents’ security lights.

     “Ma, we don’t do that stuff,” I whined. She pressed a foil packet into my palm and a sheet of disgust flashed through my midsection.

     “Don’t die wondering,” she whispered darkly, driving off, a stripe of red taillights across the back of her beige car.

     Which was the same thing Forrest Watson told Jono Shoemaker, trying to convince him to huff Pine-Sol off the dashboard of his car. Jono was still high when he was run over in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven by an unidentified driver in a red Camaro.

Elisabeth Cohen works at a public relations agency in Washington, D.C. When she has time, she writes.