When I wheeled through the door of Room 12A at the Heloise Gumm High School for Exceptional Children, the first thing I saw was a shiny red football helmet looming over a blond wooden desk. Well, I thought, at least the dress code is lenient. The last school I attended was pretty strict: no denims or T-shirts, no high heels, no more makeup than Jackie Kennedy wore.
Mrs. Page motioned me toward the front of the room. “Class,” she began officially, “this is our new student, Maggie Freer. I’m sure that you’ll all make her feel at home.” I hate being reduced to third-person, so I stared at my little toe, which was wiggling. It’s the only part of me from the waist down that moves. When I’m nervous it gets going on its own.
Mrs. Page asked all the kids to state their name and handicap. “It saves a lot of time and questions later,” she explained.
“I had polio when I was ten,” I said when my turn came. “Six months before the vaccine came out.” There was a little awed hush in the room. This was familiar to me—I call it the Prestige of Polio. When it comes to wheelchair disabilities, it’s the top of the heap. Maybe because a U.S. president had it. I don’t know. But for six years now people have always been impressed when I mention my disease.
The football helmet was called Julio, and there was a kid with real bad cerebral palsy named Carl. And I was wrong about the dress code: Julio had hydrocephalus and wore the helmet day and night for protection. What would it take to get him to remove it for me?
Mrs. Page was teaching geography. She pulled a glossy map of the world down in front of the chalkboard. Lots of pink, yellow, green, and blue blotches. I noticed that Thailand was still called Siam. The bell rang, but no one left. They wheeled their chairs back from the desks and huddled, chatting, in small groups. Only Julio stood, tall and lean, without a chair. Then, in about ten minutes, the bell rang again and Mrs. Page began English. I had gone to regular schools all my life, and I missed being carried along with the crush of students changing classes at a regular school—the commotion, the sly remarks and quick digs.
“Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy,” Mrs. Page started, “of doomed love, of a love which tries to go against tradition and the weight of social custom.” I detected a faint snicker behind me. “But there are many other important messages in this play, as in all of Shakespeare.” She quoted: “‘He that is strucken blind cannot forget the precious treasure of his eyesight lost,’” then paused respectfully. “But mainly,” she went on, “we could sum it up with these words: ‘Alas that love, so gentle in his view, should be so tyrannous and rough in proof . . . violent delights have violent ends.’” Having read the play aloud with my dad many times after my spinal fusion, I quoted to myself the apt, “She speaks, yet she says nothing,” while I doodled a cartoon of Julio on the inside of my notebook.
At lunch the kids were real friendly. First everybody in chairs went through the line, then Julio, then the born deaf kids from the second floor, who talked rapidly with their hands in miniature karate chops. The only sign language I knew was the international screw you finger, so I smiled a lot at them but didn’t try to join in. I showed Julio my sketch of him, thinking he’d be flattered.
“Someday I won’t need this,” he said, adjusting his chin strap. “Otherwise, I’m completely normal.”
“What about you?” he asked, looking at my small legs.
“This is it,” I answered.
“Yeah, well, at least you’re not in a potty chair like some of them.”
“I’ll remember that next time I say my prayers.”
“You wanna take a walk?” He didn’t hurry to rephrase his question, which was a good sign. I was tired of people adjusting their vocabularies to accommodate my wheels.
We headed out the door onto the playground, a dismal paved area surrounded by very tall fences. Across the alley was a body shop and an envelope warehouse. I remembered the photograph on the school brochure. It showed the front with its wide, spanking white double doors and closely cropped shrubs. Julio twined his fingers in the chain link and was silent. I felt like a parked car with all the glare and concrete. My wheels were hot to the touch, and my foot pedals were starting to burn. Then we saw Carl motioning us and returned to the lunchroom.
“She’s going to announce it after lunch,” Carl said, fighting for each word.
“You sure?” Julio asked. I watched Carl struggle to maintain control of his movements. He nodded, then rested against his chairback.
“What?” I asked.
“Another field trip,” Julio said. He tore open a pack of Tom’s Peanut Butter Crackers, dropped the wrapper, and crushed it under his foot. The cellophane unfolded spastically, just like Carl.
“I saw a cow in person once,” Carl managed to say.
“Oh yeah,” Julio said, “we’ve had some stellar field trips.”
“Now I’m going to get to see God,” Carl continued.
“Like one time they loaded all of us into a bus.” Julio crunched down on the whole bundle of crackers at once. “You know how long that takes? And then they drove us over to the rich end of town to—get this—see the azaleas in bloom.” At that moment his front teeth were blooming with orange flecks of cracker and peanut butter.
“And music,” Carl said, touching my hand.
“Yeah.” Julio explained for him. “We go to the symphony four times a year. They have to take out the whole first row of seats for us.”
“I like music,” I said. “It makes me feel like I’m flying.”
“Me too,” Julio conceded. “The music part is great. It’s the way they talk to us that gets me. You know, like we’re retarded, too.”
“Bolero was good,” Carl said. “Have you heard Bolero?”
The deaf kids were returning their trays through the cafeteria pass through. They were a rough and tumble group—punching each other on the arm, banging the trays around. It never occurred to me that deaf people would be so noisy. “What about them?” I asked. “Do they go to the concerts?”
“Course not,” Julio answered.
The deaf kids lined up at the bottom of the stairs. It was a steep metal staircase with one landing and rivet-like pockmarks all over it, like something salvaged from a battleship. The noise was tremendous as they stampeded up. Julio pointed out their teacher, Miss Simons, who brought up the end of the line—a powerful looking woman with meaty arms and legs and a long chestnut colored ponytail. She looked about forty but bounded up the steps energetically, her arms extended as if to catch all of them if the tide turned.
After lunch we had a rest period in the physical therapy room. Everyone got out of their chairs and lay down on thick leatherette mats. Mrs. Page brought me an upholstered cube and placed it at the end of my mat. I got into Fowler’s antigravity position—my knees crooked as if I were seated in a chair that had been tilted back onto the floor. Mrs. Page put on a recording of Swan Lake, and my mind began to drift.
The next thing I knew a little dog was licking my face, a toy poodle with pink skin and eyes streaked like marbles.
“Oh my poor, darling, sweet thing,” a voice behind me said. I twisted my head around to see two heavy brown walking shoes and thick support hose. Then a hand brushed my face. “Lamar! How rude of you.” She scooped the dog up, then touched my face again. “You precious little thing,” she crooned. I realized, then, that she was talking not to the dog but to me.
“Who are you?” I asked, raising up on both elbows and reaching for my chair parked alongside.
“Let me help you, dear,” she said, going for my armpits.
Mrs. Page lunged between us. “Maggie, this is Mrs. Gumm.” Suddenly I made the connection—she was Heloise Gumm, the benefactor and founder of the school.
“Pleased to meet you.” I hoisted myself into my chair.
We arranged ourselves in rows for Mrs. Gumm. Then the deaf kids torpedoed through the doorway, laughing and poking each other.
Mrs. Gumm beamed. “My dear silent angels,” she said. They ignored her. Miss Simons settled them in and joined her at the front to translate into sign language.
“My dear children,” said Mrs. Gumm. “It’s all been arranged for two weeks from Friday. A big field trip.” She looked to Miss Simons for help, then mimicked the sign for “big.” “Pilgrims and tourists from all over the country come to Withlahatchee Springs, Florida. The radioactive waters are said to be healing.”
Carl, seated next to me, raised his hand jerkily.
“Yes?” Mrs. Gumm noticed.
“Are we spending the night?”
“No, dear. But we’ll have lunch and dinner on the road, and the park has refreshment stands. Won’t that be fun?”
I quickly scrawled a note to Carl: oh god, junk food at last. He smiled.
“Where was I?” Mrs. Gumm asked Lamar, whose head peeked out from her arm. “Yes. Christ of the Orange Grove. A magnificent statue. A holy shrine without the great expense and danger of traveling to the Holy Land. A modern wonder of the world.”
I looked over at Miss Simons, trying to verify what I’d heard. She jabbed the palm of her left hand with her right index finger, then punched a similar “hole” in the right hand. Then she tapped her way up one arm, like someone playing “this little piggy.” She kept repeating these gestures. A fat tear slid down Carl’s cheek. Taking my pen hand in his own, he made me circle the word god on my notepad.
Mrs. Gumm visited our classroom every morning to give an inspirational message. “I was without shoes,” she began on Wednesday in an ominous tone, “and wanting the pity of the world until I saw a man without feet.” I knew it was supposed to make me feel better, but all I could see the rest of that day were stumps.
After her pep talk, she went upstairs to her silent angels. Rumor had it that the deaf room was a scientific wonder, with state of the art earphones and oscilloscopes. Kids said it was brightly painted and wallpapered and had shag carpeting. Amanda Frank’s mother had told her there were all kinds of posters—polar bears with “real” fur and photographs of castles that Mrs. Gumm had visited on her yearly European vacations. I itched to see it. Could it really be so much nicer than our shabby room, with its green chalkboard overhung with the cursive alphabet? Mrs. Page often brought flowers from home for her desk, but otherwise the room was a dull beige designed to hide dirt for years.
Thursday at lunch I convinced Julio to eat with the deaf kids. Carl tagged along. We waved hello as we pulled up to the table where they were bent over their macaroni casseroles and milk. A few returned the wave, then ignored us.
“I told you,” Julio said, grabbing hold of Carl’s chair handles to return him to our side of the lunchroom.
“Wait,” I said, throwing on the brake lever of Carl’s chair. He lurched slightly forward.
“They don’t want us,” Julio said, his foot tapping in annoyance.
I looked at the ten or so faces at the table. Most of them seemed relaxed as sleepers but with open eyes. They sat much closer together than hearing people and leaned and rubbed against each other. I decided to go for it and put my arm against the thin arm of a girl with reddish hair. She turned to acknowledge me and kept on drinking her milk. I felt a slight pressure back from her warm, smooth flesh. Then, as if someone had lowered a curtain, she turned away and began gesturing to the boy on her right.
“They don’t like us,” Carl said.
“No. They just like each other better,” I said. Julio’s face brightened. He moved his hands from Carl’s chair to my shoulders.
“I like you,” he said, and began to massage my neck. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Carl blush furiously, then move his wavering hand to touch Julio’s leg. We froze for a moment. Then Julio released his gentle grip and pushed Carl to the wheelchair side of the cafeteria.
“The Christ is seven stories tall,” Carl said, his face returned to its usual pale color.
“All I want to know is do they sell cotton candy,” I told him.
“I heard the Christ is so white. When you touch him your hands come away all silvery. And beautiful. Like moonlight.”
“Or chalk,” Julio said.
“They have a big Bible,” Carl continued. “I heard the pages are made of steel.”
“I heard they have lots of natural springs, and Mrs. Gumm wants us all to get baptized.” Julio fiddled with the straw in his milk.
“Oh no!” I lamented. In the two years I spent at Warm Springs, clergymen of every faith had visited me, not to mention the evangelists I attracted on weekend family outings who tried to talk me into attending tent revivals.
“On the other hand,” Julio said, “maybe they have rides.”
“Oh sure,” I said, “like the Tunnel of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Julio cracked up.
“I could get cured,” Carl said, staring out the window at the body shop, where blue fire flared from an acetylene torch.
Back in the PT room, Mrs. Page arranged us on our mats, put on Beethoven at low level, and left the room to join Miss Simons and the rest of the staff in the faculty lounge. Beethoven always reminds me of someone having a temper tantrum, so for the first time I stayed awake. I looked at the other kids lying on the floor, some with knees bent and legs elevated like mine, others on their sides, and some curled up like unborn babies. Julio’s red helmet stood out like a Christmas ornament three mats away. He was reading Battle Cry. It looked like a steamy sex novel from the cover, which showed a couple kissing, the man’s uniformed body pressed hard against the woman.
“Hey, Julio,” I whispered, “are you getting ready for Romeo and Juliet?” We were going to read parts of it aloud in class for the next few days. Julio shushed me and kept reading. A moment later he said, “I’ll turn down the pages with good parts for you.”
“Thanks.” Just then I heard thumping from the ceiling. Nothing so loud as to startle, and not that creepy groaning that makes you think the roof will collapse. This sounded like people batting tom toms.
“What is that?”
Julio came over and sat down beside me. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s some kind of vibration therapy. Or dancing.”
“Have you ever been upstairs?”
“No. But they do it just about every day.” He suspended the book in front of my eyes. “Read this,” he said.
“So what?” I said, after speeding through it.
“I thought only babies sucked women’s tits,” he admitted.
“Well, that just shows how much you know,” I said, trying to sound cool.
Mrs. Page had turned off the classroom lights and lowered the window shades to simulate night. She was posted by the switch to bring the dreaded dawn on cue to Romeo and Juliet. Amanda was reading the part of Juliet, and Julio was Romeo.
“It was the nightingale,” Amanda insisted, trying to get Romeo to stick around even though he’d been banished.
“It was the lark,” Julio argued. I waited for my lines, but it took forever. Besides, Juliet’s nurse didn’t have a lot to say in this scene.
“Yond light is not daylight,” Amanda said. “It is some meteor that the sun exhales.” She sounded like someone reading the ingredients on a cereal box.
But Julio was really getting into his role. “Let me be put to death,” he screamed, clutching his chest. “Come death and welcome! Juliet wills it so.”
This startled Amanda, but she continued to read flatly. “Now be gone,” she told him with equal emphasis on each word.
Mrs. Page flipped the light switch. Julio looked at the ceiling as if he were seeing it for the first time. “More light and light. More dark and dark our woes!” he wailed.
I quickly wheeled over to the couple. “Madame!” I reprimanded Juliet. “The day is broke, be wary, look about.”
Julio planted a wet one on Amanda’s hand and retreated to the back of the room. By then Amanda was very interested in her part, and her “Oh think’st thou we shall ever meet again?” was passionate.
From the doorway Julio’s voice boomed in an astounding stage whisper that gave me goose bumps. “I doubt it not,” he reassured Amanda, “and all these woes shall serve for sweet discourses in our time to come.”
Amanda just sat there, a lovesick expression on her face.
“Cut!” Mrs. Page ordered, returning to her desk. “That was good. Would anyone like to talk about the meaning of this scene? I mean, how we might apply it in our own lives?”
“Can we rehearse it again?” Amanda blurted.
“We won’t have time today, I’m afraid,” Mrs. Page said.
Carl was thoughtful. “You just know they aren’t going to live happily ever after,” he said. “I don’t know how, but you do.”
“That’s true,” Mrs. Page agreed.
“But you want them to so bad, like wanting to believe in miracles.”
Four days before our trip Mrs. Gumm delivered an orientation lecture to the whole school. I took plenty of notes, figuring that a studious, attentive attitude might come in handy if I had to bargain for taffy apples and chili dogs.
“Gethsemane Sinkhole,” she intoned. “Even the name is magical.” She paused while Miss Simons signed for the deaf kids. Julio passed me Battle Cry with a juicy passage set off by blue ink brackets. I read it as I continued to take notes about our destination. It was a strange combination of facts and word pictures:
Harold J. Wilson whose money had built the Christ and whose features it supposedly bore. A dressing gown, sheer, white—it flowed like a billow to the floor. From a distance the outstretched arms (sixty-five feet across) give the appearance of a mammoth cross surrounded by twenty thousand orange trees. Across the room each heard the other’s deep breath. He could see the nipples of her breasts through the film of silk net. Three automobiles can be suspended from either wrist without affecting the statue. Free juice samples. Their bodies seemed to melt together. She sank her fingernails into his flesh. “Oh God, God, God,” she said. Seventy feet tall. White cement.
“Bring your cameras,” Mrs. Gumm suggested, “and some mad money. The Christ Only Art Gallery has lovely crucifixions.” She pulled a large crocheted handkerchief from her purse and stretched it taut against her black dress. The familiar gossipy groupings of The Last Supper emerged in incredible detail. “Handmade,” she crowed, pivoting so that everyone could see the sacred scene displayed on her chest.
On my notepad I wrote Julio a message: i need to talk to you.
Rest hour was the obvious time to get a look at the deaf room. Julio and I sneaked out of PT together. The other kids were asleep as usual and the teachers safely out of earshot in their lounge.
“This is perfect timing,” I reassured Julio, as we contemplated the steep staircase to the second floor.
“I’m not worried about getting caught.” He shoved his shirttails into his trousers with abrupt pecking motions. “Maybe I should bring you up in your chair?”
“The chair would make an awful racket against the metal.”
He kicked the bottom tread, and a slight ringing filled the stairwell. “You’re right,” he said.
“I’m strong,” I told him. “I can pull myself up by my arms. Come on, Julio, I’m dying to see that room.”
“Me too. Mrs. Gumm’s ‘heaven on earth’ for her little angels! And we can see what the noise is, too.”
“Yeah.” Actually, I hadn’t thought about the thumping since that first day I heard it, but now I noticed again random thuds right over my head. I slid onto the second step. “Only seventeen more to go,” I said cheerfully.
“I can help you,” Julio said, as I began my slow ascent. “Tell me what to do.”
I have been called “fiercely independent” so many times that I practically answer to it as my name. I looked at Julio’s pale cheeks against the red of his helmet and his hands outstretched vaguely in my direction. “Stand on each stair as I climb. That way I won’t get scared looking at the spaces between the steps.”
He stood above me, backward, on the stairway, his arms extended straight from the shoulder to grip the iron railings on either side. It was comforting to see his legs firmly planted in front of me instead of the floor receding below as I hoisted myself along. His black trousers were neatly cuffed and his sweatsocks nice and clean. Soon I began to use his ankles to grab onto as I climbed.
I stopped at the landing to catch my breath. “Let me pull you the rest of the way,” he whispered. “We can practice here first. I’ll drag you along a little bit, and you can see how you like it.”
In my mind a big neon sign began flashing breasts breasts hands hands. I knew that for him to get a good grip he’d have to touch me there, but I told myself it would be like a doctor doing it. “Okay,” I muttered.
Very gently he put his arms around me and, locking his hands together, slowly pulled me six inches closer to the steps.
“Try to relax and just let it happen,” he said.
I recognized this as the line that the soldier in Battle Cry used to seduce his girlfriend, but said nothing.
I couldn’t completely relax as he pulled me or my bottom would have been bruised blue as a berry. His helmet frequently grazed my cheek, and more than ever I wished he’d take it off. I knew the bones of his skull hadn’t joined together, but I was sure I wouldn’t be shocked by the sight of his head.
Finally we reached the top of the stairs, outside Room 22. Julio straightened up, turned the doorknob slowly, opened the door a crack, and peeked in with one eye. “Oh!” he gasped, and closed the door.
“What is it?”
“Oh boy,” he said, his face a deep pink, the color your hand turns when you shine a flashlight through it.
“I can’t reach the doorknob, Julio. Open the door!”
Wordlessly he turned the knob, pulled the door ajar, then flattened himself against the wall. I squirmed to the door and Julio goosenecked around me. We looked in. My throat closed and my eyes popped open like umbrellas. There they were, the silent angels, partly undressed, some of them doing it. Julio slumped down beside me. I eased the door shut. We sat there for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he said, “I don’t feel sorry for them anymore.”
“Right,” I said.
Julio took my hand in slow motion and placed it inside his helmet against his cheek, kissing it as it passed his mouth. I felt all my blood flow into that hand, as if the rest of me had gone to sleep. My fingertips tingled.
“Oh, Julio,” I said, moved beyond the point of trying to sound original, “that feels so nice.”
We snuggled closer. I squinted my eyes shut and kissed him on the mouth. The air around me felt thick as cotton batting, and for the first time in my life all I could do was feel pleasure, a sensation of floating. After a while, he unbuttoned my blouse and very gently placed his hand over my heart. I felt the blood throbbing in his neck with my fingers. Then suddenly I felt his body stiffen. He yanked his hand from my blouse, squeezed my shoulder, and cried out, “Maggie!” From the corner of my eye I saw the bronze legs of Mrs. Gumm.
“What is going on here?”
I buttoned my blouse.
“How dare you! How dare you do this in my school?”
Julio kept holding my hand on his thigh.
Mrs. Gumm leaned into my face. “Maybe they allowed such goings on where you came from,” she hissed, “but not here. I won’t have it. I won’t have any tramps in my school.”
“Open the door,” I said.
“Girls like you have no—what door?” Mrs. Gumm was confused.
“Open the door,” Julio said quietly. “Please, just open the door.”
As if moving through someone else’s nightmare, Mrs. Gumm complied. Though we couldn’t see the kids from where we sat, we had a clear view of Mrs. Gumm’s face as she beheld her angels caught in the act. Her mouth opened slowly, forming the shape a mouth makes before it howls in pain. “Miss Simons!” she yelled over her shoulder. “Come here immediately!” Then she froze. The deaf kids must have noticed her in the doorway, because I heard a scurrying inside like kitchen mice at night. Miss Simons came clanging up the steps. Mrs. Gumm turned to me again. “However you got up here, you get back down,” she ordered. Then the two women strode into the room and slammed the door shut.
A special assembly was called that afternoon, right before school let out. By then, of course, everybody knew what had happened. I regretted having left my wheelchair in such plain view. If I had asked Julio to fold it up and hide it behind the stairs, Mrs. Gumm might never have discovered us or the deaf kids. Other than that, I felt no regret whatsoever. Julio had already told Carl he was madly in love with me, and Carl had already told me that Julio had told him.
The buses waited in the parking lot like big yellow slickers waiting for rain. Mrs. Gumm and Miss Simons joined forces at the front of the room. “I have always thought of the deaf,” Mrs. Gumm began, “as children who are seen but not heard by anyone . . . except God.” Was she going to cry? I looked at the deaf kids. They were as relaxed as usual. “His real sheep,” she went on. “And I am shocked and appalled.” She sniffed. “I don’t know how these perversities began, but they will not be tolerated.”
The deaf girl with reddish hair nudged my shoulder and smiled. Carl, sitting on my left, was as expressionless as a juror.
“If I cannot trust my children here in school, I cannot take responsibility for them out there”—her arm swept up—“in the real world.”
Carl looked at his wristwatch. Julio circled something in his English book and passed it to me: Rom: For stony limits cannot hold love out.
“Therefore I have canceled our field trip,” Mrs. Gumm announced. There was a low groan from the room. “You are not deserving of it, particularly considering the nature of your”—she searched for a word—“waywardness.” Miss Simons’s rendition seemed much more to the point: she jammed her finger in and out of a fisted hand.
Carl’s voice cracked. “Not all of us were bad,” he said, holding back tears.
“I cannot single anyone out for favors,” Mrs. Gumm answered, making me hate her at last. i’m sorry, I wrote to Carl. Julio underlined it in blue and passed it to him, giving my hand a quick squeeze. Carl read it and pushed the notepad to the floor. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t the end of the world, that maybe it was better in some mysterious way that he wasn’t going to see Christ of the Orange Grove. But when I turned to tell him, the bell rang, and he rolled past me through the door.
[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of Curtis Smith’s essay “The River of Ghosts.”]
Image by Joshua Zader
Enid Shomer is the author of four books of poetry and three of fiction. Imaginary Men (University of Iowa Press) won the Iowa Prize in Fiction as well as the LSU/Southern Review Prize. Tourist Season: Stories (Random House, 2007) won the Gold Medal in Fiction from the State of Florida. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was selected by NPR as one of the top six historical novels of the year. In 2013, Shomer received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing from the Florida Humanities Council. “Stony Limits” appears in the short fiction collection The Female Complaint, published by Shade Mountain Press.