My kindergarten classmates were disorderly and rambunctious, and the wildest of all was my friend Donnie Beck. Even before we entered kindergarten in 1962, Donnie and I were best friends – full-fledged, pinky-swear pals. Because our mothers were lifelong friends, each other’s maid and matron of honor, we thought we should be eternal comrades, too.
Donnie and I made our pinky-swear while crouching under the back porch at my house. In its murky, spider-webbed utopia, Donnie and I found our special place. We jumped forward to yell, “Boo” at the people coming up or down the steps, but mostly we told ghost stories and made up bizarre tales about faraway lands. Donnie and I shared an eager, but perhaps disturbing imagination.
At school, Donnie and I stuck together like the proverbial glue. However, in about twenty minutes, we would witness an event that would shape our lives forever and send us in separate directions. The dark affair would affect all 41 kindergartners at St. Mark’s school, but none as much as Donnie.
Miss Lynda blew the two-minute-warning whistle on the playground as the sun throbbed high overhead. Lynda liked being the whistle-blower; it suited her strict, military style of discipline in controlling her flock of five-year-olds. Two minutes from the warning sound, she would herd us inside to do the “Pick-Up Dance” for end-of-day cleanup.
We called Miss Lynda “Miss Beach Ball.” She was easily twice the size of a normal woman, with Michelin-man rolls of fat on her arms and legs, and one thick tire-tube roll that suggested breasts. Her face sunk into dimples like a hog’s face, with the four chins of an Italian opera singer. An ebony forest of peach-fuzz covered her jaw and upper lip. It didn’t help that she “wasn’t one for fixin’ herself up for company,” as my Daddy said. Uncombed poofs of black hair ended in a banner of frizz over her apple-round body. Lynda buckled strappy white-leather sandals over elephantine ankles and wore a wide, flowery tent-dress – polyester, of course, the latest miracle fabric.
Once I heard Mom say, “Bless her heart, she’ll never marry.”
The kids made jokes about Miss Lynda rolling down a hill like a beach ball, bouncing off boulders and crashing at the bottom. Pretending we were her, we played the game “Look Out Below!” when rolling down the hill on the playground’s side yard.
It was a Tuesday and a sweltering day in East Tennessee, 92 degrees and 87 percent humidity. Sweat from Miss Lynda’s upper lip rolled into her mouth and seeing the liquid salt on its path, I tasted the grit of the liquid salt myself. As I watched, Lynda caught the eye of young Charlene, a temporary teacher who didn’t always follow kindergarten rules. Lynda motioned as if to say, “I’m going in.” Then, not caring who it was, she called the kid standing closest to her.
“Donnie!” she cried. He tried to avoid her eyes, but she waved him forward. Donnie cringed and began a slow walk to our fat, sweaty teacher. None of us liked her, especially her way of talking to us, as if we were soldiers. Too much marching. Not just strict, Miss Lynda could be flat-out mean.
“Come with me, Donnie. The two of us will get started early,” she said. With her pudgy hands on both of Donnie’s shoulders, she turned him to the door and propelled him forward. She whispered in Donnie’s ear and I became suspicious. Though I wished I could have gone inside with them, to “supervise,” I ran around the building to the one window with a view of the playroom. On this hot day, the window was open and four fans blew.
Miss Lynda laughed on the way in as if she was trying to joke with Donnie. Donnie’s scowl made it obvious he wasn’t interested in joking with fat Miss Lynda, even though it appeared she was in a good mood. She suggested a cleanup game. “To make it more fun,” she said.
A suspicious-looking Donnie asked, “What game?”
Lynda scanned the room. “Umm… there!” Multiple layers of flab shook as she pointed to the kick balls left from that morning’s game of dodgeball. “See those balls? Let’s kick them a few at a time, all the way back to the closet. Don’t kick them high though. Keep them near the floor like a soccer ball.”
On any other day, the rule was “no balls in the playroom.” Mrs. Sattler said it was too easy to trip on them. That morning, however, it had rained, and the teachers had made an exception.
Our playroom was the Fellowship Hall at St. Mark’s church – thirty yards by fifty, with a floor of commercial tile over concrete. The back closet spanned the width of the room, double-deep to accommodate a horde of tables and chairs. Both sets of plastic accordion doors were open. On the left, a net for balls was half-filled.
Donnie aligned three balls and kicked them ahead one at a time, repeating the process as he approached the closet-end of the room. He looked up to note Miss Lynda’s technique, and he laughed. The teacher kicked two balls in a duck-walk and made quacking sound effects as she moved forward.
After his laugh, Donnie stopped short. His eyebrows wiggled as he transformed into a competitive five-year-old boy. “Unfair! You’re only ahead because you have two balls and I have three!”
It was easy to see that Miss Lynda would win the race. With a good tempo, she had kicked her balls within twenty feet of the over-sized closet. I guess Donnie wanted to even the odds. He faced her back and kicked one of his balls toward Miss Lynnda and shouted a big hooray. He kicked a little harder this time. Extra hard, in fact.
Donnie watched the ball smack the back of Miss Lynda’s fat knees. The splat on contact echoed in the room.
Then Donnie’s ball bounced straight down between Miss Lynda’s legs and collided with her two duck-walk balls. She tiptoed with her left leg, trying to straddle the balls, but they were hopelessly tangled. Unable to avoid it, she stepped on the third ball; the one Donnie had kicked at her. The teacher’s arms flailed, but she landed with her arms spread wide. She didn’t break her fall. Miss Lynda fell flat on her forehead.
The deafening thud of a skull hitting a concrete floor filled the room. Then all sound stopped. Inside and out, it was quiet. Eerie quiet.
Miss Lynda didn’t move, she didn’t laugh. She didn’t even moan or call out for help. There was nothing but utter silence, echoing in our oversized playroom. Donnie stared at her, saying nothing. In my child’s mind, I wondered why Miss Lynda’s beach-ball body didn’t bounce when she fell, with all that extra fat.
Miss Lynda lay face-down on the floor, her cheek resting on the tile. From my angle, I could see up her flowery dress but tried to avert my eyes away from that horrendous sight. I shivered in knowing Donnie could also see the span of white, lumpy thigh. He hadn’t moved since Miss Lynda went down. It was as if his feet were frozen in place and his mouth frozen in a gaping “O.” As silence built, Donnie began a slow walk toward her. “Miss Lynda? I’m sorry,” he said, barely audible.
As he grew closer, Donnie’ face contorted as he saw Miss Lynda’s head looking like meat, and her one exposed eye wide open, staring straight ahead, focused on nothing. Blood covered her face and a small trickle dripped from her pudgy lips.
He reached out to touch her shoulder. Just then, a breeze came through the window and papers ruffled on Ms. Sattler’s desk. Donnie jumped back and tears erupted from his wide eyes like a volcano erupts lava. His hands shook as if he held a jackhammer.
Donnie spoke out loud, rambling. I heard only snippets of his monologue. “Please, no! Get up, Miss Lynda! I didn’t mean to knock you down! I didn’t mean to!” He shook his head as if to clear his mind, and then a loud wail escaped his pale lips. “Miss Lynda, did you have a heart attack like my daddy? Will a Band-Aid help?” Then he put his hands over his ears as if to block the sound of his own voice and the silence that surrounded him. More tears. There was painful desperation in his voice as he screamed at the ceiling. “I want my Momma!”
Shifting his stare to Miss Lynda’s body, he screamed, “What have I done?” and repeated it four times. From my vantage point, I could see the terror in his eyes. Every ounce of empathy in my five-year-old heart reached for him. Yet I stood frozen in fear, unable to run for the help I knew Donnie and Miss Lynda needed. As if he drew a new breath of bravery, he walked to crouch beside the teacher.
“Please wake up, Miss Lynda. Let’s finish the game,” Donnie begged. I guess I was the only one who know the game was over for good. He pleaded with her but the only answer was a loud silence.
A moment later, the room filled with the sounds of the group coming in from the playground, laughter at full volume. Donnie heard them, too. He moaned and cried out, breathing relief when he Miss Charlene leading the group of kids. Donnie plopped his bony backside onto the tile floor and yelled, “Help! Blood! Miss Lynda won’t wake up!”
Charlene Jennings looked at Donnie sitting cross-legged on the floor. Her glance scanned the smattering of kick balls and landed on the spectacle, the lump of Miss Lynda. Her legs wavered, her face washed in white and her eyes wide and bulbous. Miss Charlene ran to Lynda Dobbs’ obese body in what seemed like slow motion.
Before she reached Miss Lynda, I bounded from my spot at the window and ran into the building as the last in line with the other kids. There were shouts from all directions: “Call the police!” and “Call an ambulance!” The decibels in the room quadrupled.
I wanted to run to Donnie but Mrs. Sattler, the director of the kindergarten, held me back. My heart beat between my temples and pounded the top of my head. I had never been so afraid and had never seen an adult scared or yelling for help, and now all of them were shouting and shaking. My eyes popped wide with fear.
I scanned the bump of Miss Lynda on the floor. Though I had seen it from the window, the color of blood near her head sent another shiver up my spine. Donnie’s crying filled the room, uncontrollable. He sat with his shoulders bobbing, full-throttle crying, and looking straight at me with begging eyes. In my mind, he was begging me to make this awful day go away, to stop the room from spinning.
I burst into tears. Again, I tried to run to Donnie, but the teacher grabbed my arm and pulled me back to the wall. “Don’t go near it,” Mrs. Sattler said. I thought “it” was a mean way to refer to Donnie, or Miss Lynda, or whatever “it” she meant. Maybe “it” was the metallic smell, like a copper penny, as it wafted from the scene. A spot in my gut churned, and I thought I might vomit.
Donnie leaned forward to lay his face on the cold floor, pressing his cheek to the tile just as Miss Lynda had done. In his pause there, I sent him good wishes without speaking, my own version of a prayer. I hoped it was a calmer place for him; maybe the cold would ease his fears and give him a respite.
Finally, Donnie’s eyes closed but jerked open a second later. The fear in the room was palpable and pulsed from Donnie’s tiny body.
Still on his belly with his cheek on the tile, Donnie’s eyes scanned the floor. Only his eyes moved, stopping at the sight of the large brown smear and two deep, shiny puddles of bright red. His eyes darted away, and he closed them again. With all the force I felt in my body, I tried to send happy thoughts his way. Anything happy, please.
That day, at that very moment, I saw Donnie Beck’s innocence disappear. I saw horror and guilt fill the soul of a happy boy destined for greatness. My own innocence took a nosedive, too, along with the innocence of my friends who lined the walls.
Charlene Jennings pushed herself forward and a dragging, baritone slur of her shouts boomed as she reached Lynda’s prone body and the explosion of blood and flesh on her face.
The teacher trembled when she reached to awaken her friend. With just one touch, she jerked back and gasped, “Oh my gosh! Lynda Dobbs is dead!” She turned and snapped at Donnie, “Did you kick the ball at her, Donnie Beck? Look at me! What did you do?”
Donnie sat up, showing a river of tears washing his dust-covered face. He begged, “I didn’t mean to! I just kicked it!”
Other teachers came to the scene, but Donnie whimpered and shied away from all of them. Most ran to check on Lynda first, anyway. The adults that checked on Donnie made purring sounds and said it was “all okay.” But he looked at me and shook his head as if he believed nothing in the world was okay. The more the teachers tried to assure him, the more he cried.
Donnie had a “V” of sweat on his shirt, like a man, but he was a boy, a trembling waif of a boy. He laid down in retreat and curled in a tight fetal position.
Still crying, he took too deep of a breath. The resulting yowl sounded like a laugh, becoming a series of sobbing hiccups. “Momma!” is all Donnie could say, repeating it over and over, with his head between his knees.
Miss Charlene said, “You better believe I’ll get your momma!” and pivoted to the black telephone on Mrs. Sattler’s desk. She flipped through the laminated list on the wall and dialed as quickly as possible. Charlene said seven words into the mouthpiece: “Donnie killed a teacher. Come get him.” As she saw Mrs. Sattler stomping toward her, she hung up in a hurry.
Barbara Sattler shouted before she reached Charlene. Everything was a wreck, and she had a sneaking feeling young Charlene had made it worse.
“Charlene, who did you call? Did you call a parent? Never call a parent, for any reason, and certainly not today! Now, move, and take the children outside.” Miss Sattler was near hysteria.
As the young teacher turned to go, the director again demanded, “Who did you call, Charlene?”
“I called Mrs. Beck,” Miss Charlene admitted, “I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have.” Her words were just above a whisper.
“You’re certainly right you shouldn’t have!” The director’s eyes were watering with frustration, anger, and fear.
“And what did you say to Donnie?” Mrs. Sattler asked. Charlene froze. Had she said anything at all? As if she couldn’t remember, she cocked her head to the left and knotted her brow.
Though she may not have remembered, I knew exactly what she said to Donnie; I heard it all. She accused him of killing Miss Lynda on purpose. Though her words could have been innocent and not meant as an accusation, the damage was done. They would cause a lifetime of damage to a little boy now on the floor in the fetal position, crying like the baby he was.
Charlene admitted, “I don’t remember what I said, Mrs. Sattler.”
The director sighed, looked at the long list of names on the list, and picked up the phone. The kindergarten would be closed as soon as possible, and she had forty other mothers to call.
Mary Jane Beck told my mother exactly what happened when she got Miss Charlene’s call, and I overheard her telling Daddy. Mom told the story through a rush of tears and sniffles and I cried in the dining room while hearing her cries.
Mary Jane said she stared at the phone as if it was an alien. Thirty seconds after Charlene called, Mrs. Sattler called, softening the disturbing but confusing news. Mrs. Sattler hung up, but Mary Beth kept the phone to her ear, hearing the growl of the dial tone, like the deep growl of a sea creature.
She said she sat in silence for fifteen seconds or longer, moving in slow motion. With great effort, she pulled her purse from the file cabinet in her office and stood up to go.
No. She sat back down in the chair. “Call Henry,” she said aloud. Henry, the strength of the family and the calming source – he’d know what to do.
Henry Beck was a busy lawyer in our town, and Mary Jane had often complained about the difficulty in reaching him during the day. He spent his time with clients or arguing cases in court. That day, as coincidence would have it, Henry ate lunch in his office. The receptionist put Mary Jane through and Henry answered without missing a bite.
“Meet me at the kindergarten. Donnie’s in trouble,” she said in a staccato tone. Henry paused. This didn’t sound like a normal Mary Jane and she didn’t say “hospital,” she said “trouble.” His brows furrowed, he opened his mouth to speak, but Mary Jane interrupted.
“Hurry, Henry.” It was a mere whisper, but Henry later said he heard her loud and clear.
“I’ll be there in five minutes.”
During each of my twelve years of school in Queensport, I sat between Jeb Austin and Craig Babcock, because Avery was the last “A” among all the town’s residents. The phone book proved it. At kindergarten, with Avery as the only “A,” Mrs. Sattler’s second call was to my mom.
“There has been a death, Mrs. Avery, and we’re closing the kindergarten,” she said, with as much calm as she could muster. “The police are on their way, so please arrange to have Dana picked up as soon as possible.”
“Oh my gosh! What happened?” Mom asked in a panic.
Mrs. Sattler’s response was not an answer and worried Mom more, she told me later. “I’ll send a note home with Dana. It is too complicated to explain to each parent as I go.”
Miss Charlene and another teacher led the class outside to the playground, hoping joy would return to our innocent faces, but a somber mood covered the yard. Fright encompassed us and we wore it like a shroud. Most of the kids cried, and Miss Charlene cried, too.
Nobody climbed on the jungle gym and I saw only one kid on the swing set, his feet on the ground and not moving an inch. Holly Brown sat on the Merry-Go-Round without moving, her face in the cradle of her arms. I stood up from the porch steps, determined to soothe her.
Holly cried in big sobs as most of us did. The creak of the Merry-Go-Round alerted her to my presence, and she reached out to me. We hugged and cried, leaning hard against each other. The fear on the playground vibrated with a loud static. Waiting in dread, we had all joined a club, a trauma club.
This group of forty kids united in a bond unexplainable to any other, seeing death for the first time. Not understanding the concept, just seeing the teachers upset made us know it must be bad. Our worries and misunderstanding made us one.
I had seen Donnie cry; that had never happened. And why isn’t Donnie out here with us? I worried he was still curled up and crying and wondered why his mother wasn’t here yet.
Considering myself responsible for Holly’s feelings, too, I thought of ways to make her cheer up, anything that might comfort her. Whether for my own benefit or for the others, I considered sharing what I had seen. In the pondering, my eyes glazed over with feelings too strong for my five-year-old brain. One thought repeated: Where is my Momma? Tears clouded my eyes. Pure fear covered me and my heart beat like a kettle drum as terror built within me. That was before the bad stuff happened.
An ambulance shrieked into the church driveway. The deafening siren turned off but the red lights on the roof continued to spin, casting eerie shadows across the playground, even in the bright sun. The pattern mesmerized me.
Four men rushed inside, carrying roll-up stretchers, I.V. bags, and a half-dozen pack bags and carry cases. My friends and I were silent, looking at each other with panic and fear, waiting for the ambulance men to come back outside.
A few minutes later, they walked out of the building carrying a stretcher, with poles end-to-end. There were shouts of “Sheet!” and “Cover her!” but Miss Lynda came out of the building face-up, uncovered for all to see. Her bloody face looked to the sky, and her rumpled dress showed stains of bright red around the collar. Miss Lynda’s dimpled white thighs seemed translucent under her dress, pushed up to a line near her crotch. The men walked at a fast pace, straight to the ambulance.
I stared in disbelief. My teacher was dead, staring to the sky. Her blood has dried to a matte-finish ochre brown, the ugliest color I’d ever seen. The ambulance crew transferred Miss Lynda to a bigger stretcher as we watched in horror. Every sound was amplified.
The tallest medic wore green surgical scrubs, and I sensed he was the one in charge. He paused beside Miss Lynda’s waist and shouted to someone inside the ambulance. Then he reached forward to retrieve a folded white sheet.
When the man pulled the sheet over Miss Lynda’s face, covering the blood, I simplified the grotesque problem. Even the doctors don’t want to see blood. Miss Lynda was dead. “Dead as a doornail,” Daddy would say. I cried, but couldn’t say the word “dead” out loud.
After the ambulance left, the police arrived. They weren’t in any hurry, sitting in the car for several minutes before opening the doors. Then two uniformed policemen exited – one skinny and one fat. The patrol car’s blue roof lights spun and, mixed with the red lights of the ambulance, a dance played an eerie aura on the playground.
As we waited, firemen from the adjacent Station Number Five ran across the street and onto our playground. The county emergency radio has announced the disaster, and the fireman came to tend to us and address our trauma. I remember one fireman saying something like “You saw it, but you didn’t cause it,” and “Your Mommy and Daddy will explain it to you.”
Donnie didn’t hear this pep talk. He was inside with the adults and the police. I knew death was foreign in Donnie’s world. No relatives had died in his short lifetime, not even a fish or a dog. I feared he knew Miss Lynda was dead and thought it was his fault.
While all were distracted by the firemen, I crept from the playground and inside the building to find Donnie, following the policemen as they pushed my friend through the hallway toward the lunchroom.
The skinny policeman pushed Donnie into a brown metal folding chair at the end of a long white table. The room featured three rows of long tables, with a stack of chairs to the side where I could hide.
With his forehead down on the edge of the table, tears and snot dripped on Donnie’s khaki shorts. The skinny policemen stepped to the side and the big one walked forward to address the crying boy.
He sat across the table and tried to make Donnie smile. It was as if he tried to look casual, but it was a wasted effort; there was nothing friendly or casual about this aggressive redneck-cop.
As was later reported, he had made Sergeant three weeks prior and set up a plan to keep moving up the ladder, no matter the cost. This was his opportunity to shine, he deemed, and he didn’t care how young the suspect was. He wanted a confession and planned to get it come hell or high water.
“My name is Sergeant Weaver, Donald. You can help yourself in this crime if you tell me exactly what happened,” he stated, flipping to a blank page in his notebook.
Did he say “crime?” I thought. I wonder what that means.
The man looked like a giant compared to Donnie. He pushed his hat back far enough to expose the stark-black contrast of his hairline. Then, with a snap, he turned toward Donnie and his pitch-black eyes pierced like arrows. Donnie shivered as I did the same.
A silent Donnie shrugged his shoulders in response to Weaver’s barrage of questions. He couldn’t remember what happened, he said. Donnie looked deathly afraid, like he was in shock.
“How did she fall down?” Weaver continued.
Donnie tried to answer. “She was kicking balls. And a really big sound got quiet.”
“But why did you kick the ball at Miss Dobbs?” the sergeant probed.
Donnie tried to explain. “Balls were bouncing. Then she fell down. And wouldn’t get up.”
“Did you kick the ball hard?” Weaver pushed.
“Yeah! Really hard,” Donnie admitted with a child’s honesty.
“On purpose?” the policeman was getting excited.
“She had more balls to the closet. I didn’t want to lose.”
The words were close to what he needed, but he leaned in and pushed harder. “Did you kill Miss Dobbs because she was a mean teacher?”
Donnie’s simple reply, “She is a mean teacher,” would be the last comment spoken to the policeman. His lip quivered, and he cried in earnest, sobbing, with his fragile shoulders racking.
Minutes later, Donnie’s father burst into the lunch room and shrieked. “Donnie, get up! We’re going home, son!” He was a furious Henry Beck.
Mr. Beck looked at the policeman with disgust. “You will answer for this, you ass! What’s your name? Your badge number? Write it down for me now,” Henry sneered.
Sergeant Weaver didn’t say a word. With cocky confidence, he sat back and watched the father hugging his murderous child, then casually jotted his name and badge number on a slip of paper.
Henry sought to console Donnie. He cooed, “It’ll be all right, son. I’m here. And I’m not mad at you, not at all, sweetie.”
“Is she killed, Daddy? Did she have a heart attack like you? Please, can I go home! Where is Mommy?” Donnie blurted these words in a long run-on sentence with snot and tears covering his face. He was beyond consoling.
As if on cue, Donnie’s mom marched into the room carrying the fluffy tan blanket she kept in the car. Donnie and I had played on that blanket in the park many days in the past. Mary Jane Beck swaddled Donnie’s trembling body and pulled him onto her lap, completely ignoring the policemen and her husband.
She sang a soft lullaby, an inch from Donnie’s ear. She sang as you would sing to a newborn and Donnie’s body slowly relaxed. By instinct, his thumb traveled to his mouth. As his Dad patted his head, as one would pet a cat, Donnie sighed.
Weaver took off his hat to wipe his brow. He had done his day’s work, maybe the best work of his career. Yep, he had a confession. Weaver smiled, stood up, and walked to the door. With a sideways glance, he saw me and shouted “You! Come here!” I slipped out of the tiny sliver of the door’s opening and didn’t stop running until I reached the playground.
Even now, at age 52, I still have dreams about Miss Lynda’s dead body, covered in blood and glistening in the sun. In moments of fear, I still see her vacant eyes and hear Donnie’s terrified screams.
In my dreams, I am a bird, looking down on the scene. As the strength in my wings fails, I slowly descend to land on Miss Lynda’s bloody face, her wounds sticky beneath my bird-feet. Most of the time, I wake up with the first peck on her cheek.
Donnie’s dreams lasted years longer than mine did. They never ceased, in fact. The phenomenon didn’t have a name in 1962, but by the time a paranoid Donnie Beck reached high school, the PTSD diagnosis, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, confirmed his condition.
Donnie lived with his parents until he was 32 years and 18 days old. That was the day Donnie found his father’s revolver and blew his brains onto the walls of the downstairs den.
Patty Ayers is an acclaimed debut author, writing short stories and a seven-book memoir after a 32-year career as an advertising copywriter. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with an inspiring view of the Great Smoky Mountains. Her roomie and sounding board is a creative canine, Stormin’ Norman the Schnauzer.