The first-grade class prayed for reprieve as Luther Simpson stumbled through a page of Jane and Fluff the Kitten while the second-graders dawdled over their sums across the aisle in our shared classroom.
Little Ruth Elaine Lawson, a girl I’d had always thought dull, dropped her head to her desk and snuffled quietly, before bursting into great, heart-wrenching, snotty sobs. Startled at this display in a child normally so quiet, Miss Billie knelt at her side, trying to console Ruth her.
“My baby brother’s dead!!! Baby Willie got cut in two by lightning in his bed last night!!! Ooh!!! Hoo!!! Hoo!! Hoo!!! Hoo!! Hoo!!”
A collective gasp swept the classroom. True enough, there had been a terrible storm, lightning and thunder, violent enough to keep children and adults awake, but news of this terrible tragedy hadn’t gotten around yet. Shocked, Miss Billie embraced Ruth Elaine pitying the heart-broken mother who had been too undone by grief to keep this small one at her side today. The class buzzed, shocked at the news of Baby Willie’s death. Miss Billie silenced us with a fierce look, told us she’d be right back, and led the weeping child from the room, leaving Lessie Perkins to take names of evil-doers.
The whole class erupted, energized by this thrilling break in a dull day. Leonard Pope sparked a riot as an exploding baby, inspiring a room full of exploding babies as little girls feverishly tried to get the details of Willie’s catastrophe straight, thoroughly understanding the link between social status and sensational gossip. Jack Parker illustrated the explosion on the blackboard. Self-righteous, Lessie Perkins listened at the door as Miss Billie spoke to her husband, the principal, Mr. Kinnebrew. Questioning Ruth Elaine, they learned that none of the family had been notified of the tragedy. It was decided he’d get someone to take his class and notify them. As he headed to his office with Ruth Elaine, Lessie alerted the class of Miss Billie’s return. Students raced for desks, papers flying in their wake. Lessie feverishly working to get all the names, despite the fact that she’d had as much fun as anyone. Studiously oblivious to the thunderous noises preceding her reentry into the room without Ruth Elaine, Miss Billy didn’t even look up as she took the list Lessie waved imperiously. Unperturbed, she picked up where the lesson had left off.
The real tragedy resumed as Luther resumed his tortured reading. Following along just enough to keep myself out of trouble should I be called upon to read next, I immersed myself in delightfully gory images of pudgy Baby Willie, lacerated by lightning from the right shoulder angling to the left hip, a smoking mess of blood and guts covering his snowy bed linens and blasted to the walls and ceiling beyond. Repulsive stalactites of stomach contents and clotted blood dangled from the charred ceiling dripping bloody patterns on the pine floor. Little Willie’s spirit was sure to haunt to the house where he’d met his gruesome death, forcing his bereaved family to flee and fall into greater and greater misfortune as time went on. Little Willie’s spirit would linger, intent on torturing all those foolish enough to venture near on a dark stormy night. …….Oh the story went on and on. I deeply regretted not having befriended colorless little Ruth Elaine earlier in order to be nearer to the tragedy, but resolved to remedy that mistake as soon as possible, nevermore to miss a precious dramatic tidbit. The ghost of Little Willie might even pay a visit to his grieving family while I was there comforting my dear friend, Ruth Elaine, making me a central character of some future thrilling story.I schemed carefully, leaving out no possible benefit to myself.
Desperate to be the bearer of bad tidings, I plotted to race home at recess instead of waiting for lunch, but suspected John might have the same idea. Fortunately, I was first out when the bell rang, a full two hundred feet ahead of John, and raced ahead up the kitchen steps, flushed by victory, to spew the thrilling news, only to be deflated as I interrupted Mama and Daddy discussing who Mama would catch a ride with to take food out to the Lawson’s. Turning from the woodstove where she was putting on a pan of cornbread, Mama scolded “You know you don’t have time to come home at recess. Now get a biscuit and get back to school.”
I didn’t get to tell anybody. The news had already spread like wildfire.
Out of respect to the family, Mr. Kinnebrew dismissed school at noon. Ruth Elaine, normally socially invisible, wandered from the office with her lunch bucket, mystified to find herself Queen of the Playground. The big girls jostled for position around her, shoving lowly first graders to the side, demanding details of the catastrophe.
“Did it set him on fire?”
“Did guts splatter everywhere when he exploded?”
“Did any get on you?”
A real crowd-pleaser, Ruth Elaine’s story got bigger, better, and more macabre. She was just about to eat lunch with Bessie Sue Jones and Clara Pearson, the meanest fourth-graders in school when she looked up to see her mother’s two older sisters, Myrtle and Mavis, coming toward her, crying their eyes out.
“Oh, Ruth Elaine, why ain’t Maysie sent for us? What ‘n the world happened? This is going to kill pore Maysie!! She’s allus been nervous, takin’ it so hard when Mama died and never gittn’ back to herself after the baby.”
At this, Ruth Elaine forgot her new friends and got serious about crying. Her aunts put her in the wagon, vainly trying to console her, and headed up a parade including the minister and a benevolent delegation of church ladies bearing smoked ham, fried chicken, casseroles, cakes, and canned goods snaking toward the Lawson home. The bounty and variety of food bespoke the magnitude of the catastrophe.
The brilliant beauty of the blue sky fall day belied the terrible loss to be confronted as they journeyed toward their painful destination. Myrtle and Mavis kept thinking of Aunt Sue who’d lost her mind after the mad dog bit her little Joe. She’d been no good to herself or anyone else after living through his terrible death. Maysie had always been so much like poor Aunt Sue. Ruth Elaine wailed louder as they neared the house, begging them to turn around and take her back to school. The aunts pitied her and fussed over her, thinking of the horrible things she had witnessed, Ruth Elaine crying ever louder at their concern.
Dreading what they’d find as they pulled up in the sunny yard, Myrtle’s husband, Joe, called out, “Yoo Hoo! Anybody home?”
For a minute, the only answer was the barking of Will Lawson’s hound. It was impossible to see into the dark, unpainted house. Eventually, Maysie Lawson, interrupted at bathing and nursing Baby Willie, came to stand in the dark doorway. With her frazzled hair and unkempt appearance, clutching what her sisters interpreted as a blanket-wrapped body in her arms, her sisters feared she was unhinged by grief. They wailed anew, “Oh Maysie.! Pore Maysie!”
Nearly blinded by the sun in the dark doorway, seeing only the outlines of her sisters and the crowd behind them, poor Maysie knows they could only have come tell her Death has claimed Ruth Elaine, since Will, Baby Willie, and her sisters are there with her. Sweet little Ruth Elaine, her darling little girl! Had she even kissed her before shooing her off to school that morning? Broken by loss, she fell to her knees keening, “Oh my poor baby! My baby! I can’t stand it!”
Holding Baby Willie even tighter to her bosom, she wailed, burying her head in Willie’s blanket. As Maysie keened her loss, Ruth Elaine peeked from her hiding place behind the wagon seat. Myrtle and Mavis moved toward poor Maysie, still huddled in the doorway, wanting to comfort her, yet dreading her disintegration when they had to take the hideously, disemboweled body of Baby Willie from her. At this point, Will came whistling around the back of the house to see what had the dog all stirred up. Myrtle enfolded the weeping Maysie tenderly in an embrace while Mavis took the blanket-wrapped child’s body. Chubby little Willie, squalled out in protest before rooting at his Aunt, assuming one breast was as good as another. Shocked, Mavis shrieked and nearly dropped him. With Maysie sobbing for poor Ruth Elaine who was obviously alive and well, and Little Willie, chubby and hungry in his aunt’s arms, Confusion reigned. Knowing the whole mess was about to unravel, Ruth Elaine dragged herself from the wagon to face her parents.
Mortified to find themselves the hosts of a wake for a live child and parents of a phenomenal liar who’d duped the entire community, the Lawsons made the best of an embarrassing situation and invited the community to a Thanksgiving celebration for the child they might have lost.
I’d had never been special friends with Ruth Elaine, but that night, I studied her. How in the world had Ruth Elaine ever come up with that wild story and carried it off so well? Her ability to had cry so convincingly that no one ever doubted her was impressive. I watched her closely for a long time afterward, but sadly, the flame of her imagination had burned but once and briefly, perhaps due to the interference of her parents or paucity of opportunity.
Her elevated social status was fleeting. Even though I initially felt shortchanged and resentful upon learning that there would be no fine funeral, to this day I am still grateful to Ruth Elaine for a wonderful tale that has been shared at many family gatherings.