About 15 years ago, Flannista wrote the following story. It is a true story. To confirm its overall accuracy, I sent this story to Jerseysista at the beginning of the year as she is the "friend" referenced at the very end. In high school, Jersey drew the accompanying pencil sketch of Joy. Further, Jersey gave me the gift of locating Joy. Joy and I have been trading emails and voice messages for the last several months, but haven't yet actually talked. Knowing she is alive and well means much to me. You'll see what I mean once you finish this story. Thank you, Jersey.
I was the only junior in a senior high school English class and Joy sat next to me. On the first day of class, she wore a bright, flower-print dress and carried a spiral notebook with a photograph of a large Holstein on the cover. Joy didn’t speak to me. In fact, she didn’t speak to anyone that day except to tell Mark B. to grow up after he asked how many pubic hairs she left in the tub the night before.
I was disappointed because I had expected Joy to be friendly. Her father owned the largest milk farm in the area, and I had this notion that people who lived in wide open spaces and drank fresh milk every morning were neighborly –- like the Real McCoys. Also, I already admired her. A month earlier she had played Mrs. Gibbs in the high school production of Our Town. Her large breasts and maternal voice had given her performance a startling authenticity. A reviewer in the Butler Eagle, the local newspaper, had called Joy, “gifted”; “a natural”.
Joy finally spoke to me the day I asked her how she managed to sit perfectly still for so long during the cemetery scene at the end of Our Town.
“That was nothing,” she replied. “I’ve sat still for hours before. Sometimes it seems like a whole day.”
“What do you mean, ‘why’?” she replied. “I don’t know why. I just need time to think about everything. Parents –- why are they so screwed up? Vietnam . . . the My Lai massacre. Why is our country so screwed up? Doesn’t that bug you?”
I was silent. My face felt hot. “Well, what do you think about?” Joy asked.
“Mostly I think about assassinations like John F. Kennedy’s and Bobby Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s,” I said. “I think about what it might feel like to have a bullet go into your brain.”
Joy shook her head in silent agreement. “Probably doesn’t feel like anything,” she said. “Besides, I’ve often thought about walking to the middle of a pasture and putting a bullet through mine. I’d probably miss and hit a cow. There’d go the milk quota.”
We both laughed nervously, but it started us talking. We began talking not only before class, but before school started in the morning. We sat with each other at lunch time. There we talked about how much we thought our parents hated us and how stupid the cheerleaders were. We talked about the students killed at Kent State and the latest episode of “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.” We pretended we were undercover spies sent to the school to blow up boys like Mark B. or we were actresses in a play about high school.
On the last day of classes before graduation, Joy and I hiked to the top of a hill near the school. From up there, I could see students exchanging yearbooks before piling into departing buses. On the football field, workers were setting up folding chairs for graduation. I realized that I probably wouldn’t see Joy again.
Joy was looking away from the school, squinting at something in the distance. “Guess what? I’m the valedictorian,” she said. “I haven’t told anyone yet, not even my parents. I don’t know what I’m going to say. I’d like to tell everybody to grow up and do something about how screwed up the country is, but I won’t. Maybe I’ll give them a few lines from the cemetery in Our Town. You know, like, ‘When you’ve been here longer you’ll see that our life here is to forget about everything else and think only of what’s ahead and to be ready for what’s ahead.’”
My eyes grew misty. Her voice sounded just like it did in the play. Like music. At that moment, she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I wanted to know her forever.
“I’ll miss you a lot,” I said. “Who will I talk to? I don’t want you to graduate. I don’t . . . I don’t want you to die.”
“Get serious,” Joy replied, rolling her eyes. “I’m not going to die. I think about it a lot though, and it scares me. I just don’t want to be alone when it happens. But of all the people I know, you’re the only one I’d want to be with when it comes.”
It was the most intimate thing anyone had ever said to me. “You won’t be alone,” I vowed. “I promise to be with you when you die.”
I didn’t hear from Joy until about a month later. One evening while sitting at the dinner table with my four sisters and parents, my mother pulled out something from her housecoat pocket and announced: “Flannista got a letter in the mail today that I think we all need to listen to.”
I was silent. My face felt hot. I don’t remember Joy’s exact words, only the phrases my mother emphasized.
“Parents are a real bitch. Don’t you wish you could kill them sometimes?”
My mother paused. Her eyes raked my face. Then she continued. “But you can’t, so you might as well kill yourself . . . . Here’s a poem I read today by Emily Dickinson that I know you will love: ‘Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves and immortality.’”
After my mother finished reading, she methodically folded the letter and stuffed it back into her pocket. “We’ve been telling Flann for some time to stop spending so much time alone, thinking those deep thoughts of hers,” she said. “Good thing I check her mail. Seems like she’s not so lonely anymore. She’s found a friend just like herself.”
Three sisters stared at me blankly. The fourth hissed, “So when do you plan on killing mom and dad? Better yet, how about yourself?”
I didn’t say anything. I wanted to quickly toss a bomb and then duck for cover. I wanted to quote them some line from Our Town, but I couldn’t think of any. Then I wished I hadn’t given Joy my address. That I had never met her. That she was dead. I did not write back to her and she did not write again. I spend the rest of the summer babysitting and watching television. I tried not to think about death. I tried not to miss Joy.
Two days before school began, my mother came to the dinner table with the Butler Eagle. “There’s an article on the front page today that I think we all should hear.” She began to read it out loud:
“High school valedictorian involved in fatal crash . . . Joy D., valedictorian of the 1970 . . . driver of the car which killed Mr. and Mrs. . . . of Harrisville . . . Miss D. is in critical condition . . . cause of the crash remains undetermined . . . Miss D. was to have entered Princeton University . . . pursue a seminary education.”
My mother’s words whirled outside me like startled birds. I didn’t want them to settle. I wanted to bat them away.
“What do you suppose caused the crash?” my mother asked all of us. Nobody said anything. She continued, “I think Joy was lost in those deep thoughts of hers and wasn’t paying attention to the road. I’ve always said that deep thoughts will get you nowhere. What do you think, Flannista? Has that ever happened to you?”
“Better be careful when you drive, okay?”
News of Joy’s accident followed me to school. Gruesome details were shouted for all to hear at lunchtime. More were whispered during study hall. I was asked if I had seen her. No, I hadn’t. No, I don’t think she was drinking. No, I don’t think her father will have to sell his farm to pay for a law suit. No, I don’t know if she was paralyzed. Besides, she’s not my friend. Why are you asking me? Leave me alone.
But Joy’s voice and my vow to her haunted me. I had to see her. A friend who lived near her father’s farm told me one day that Joy had finally come home from the hospital. I was afraid to drive so I asked my friend to take me to her. Joy’s mother greeted me at the door, whispering that even though Joy was sleeping, I could go in and see her.
Rays from a fierce afternoon sun spotlighted a hospital bed in the middle of the living room. Lying perfectly still on top was Joy in a body cast. All I could see were her eyes, nose, part of her mouth, and the fingers on her hands. They were covered with scabs. On one side of the bed was an IV stand, on the other a chair with a Bible open to the Psalms. I stood three feet away, paralyzed. I was afraid to say anything to her, afraid to touch her, afraid that any connection would unleash a torrent of deep thoughts that would eventually kill me.
I never saw Joy again. Years later I heard that she had graduated from seminary and was pastoring a church in New Jersey. I wondered what she looked like, if she was confined to a wheelchair. I wondered if she was married and had kids. If she was happy.
I wanted to write and let Joy know how grateful I was that she was alive and how heartbroken I had been when she almost died and I hadn’t been there. I wanted her to know that I loved Emily Dickinson and that I occasionally read the Psalms. I wanted to tell her that yes, deep thoughts can sometimes paralyze you, but no, they can never kill you. I wanted to tell Joy this and more. But I never did.
POSTSCRIPT: I still haven't told Joy, but intend to. She presently lives in San Diego and is a Special Education teacher.