We brought a dime every Friday to slide into a slot inside a card featuring a smiling girl on crutches. I loved seeing my card fill up. When there were ten dimes, we would start again on a card with a crippled boy. Miss Klein, our fourth-grade teacher, kept our cards inside her desk. “Wash your hands, all of you,” she said, after we slotted our dimes. “There’s no telling who handled those coins. How filthy he was and what you could catch.”
Every day, just after lunch, Miss Klein inspected our desks. They needed to be clean. No crumbs inside or out.They needed to be spotless before we had public health. Fifteen minutes, Miss Klein said, of lifesaving. The contagious, she explained, leave filth that hides on buses and streetcars and seats at the movies. You’ll never know who’s been there and given you the itch and fester. The contagious never cover their mouths when they sneeze. They wipe their noses on their sleeves where crusts collect like scabs that bleed. They borrow combs and touch fountains with their mouths. They gobble food they drop on the floor. They squat on public toilets and never scrub with water that’s been run to scalding hot, but you won’t know who they are until they carry that filth to you like flies. Look around. You’ll see what I mean. Eyes open, class. Keep yourselves clean. Filth is a welcome mat for polio.
Always, she said, “Polio,” at the end of her speech, snarling it like a curse. Always, she took a deep breath and said, “Polio doesn’t go away like chicken pox or the measles. You wear braces and use crutches like poor Richard Hartman, who’s missed so much school he’ll fall a year behind.” Always, everybody looked at Richard Hartman’s empty desk, some of us touching our desktops as if filth had returned while we listened.
“Look at this photograph,” Miss Klein said on the last day of school, walking up and down the aisles so all of us could see. “Those children are stuck forever in iron lungs. Those children will never do anything but lie inside them so they can breathe.” She paused by Richard Hartman’s empty desk and said, “Remember to keep clean.”
All summer, I washed my hands before lunch and dinner. I cleaned my crumbs off the table. I swam in the county park lake with Jerry Mushik, who swallowed the water as if the contagious never peed there. He said nobody in our town but Richard Hartman ever got polio. He said Miss Klein wasn’t our teacher anymore. She’d have Richard Hartman again next year and have to shut up about polio every day he wasn’t absent.
In September, Richard Hartman, wearing leg braces and using crutches, was still with our class. Mrs. Gardiner never checked our desks after lunch, but she had new March of Dimes cards for each of us, even Richard Hartman. “The dimes aren’t going to help that boy,” my mother said. “It’s too late for that.”
Jerry Mushik laughed when I washed my hands after I inserted my first dime. He put his on his tongue and closed his mouth. “Fuck polio,” he whispered. For the next three weeks, he licked his dime. In October, in the cloak room before school, he forced two boys to lick their dimes. None of them got sick.
Gary Fincke’s latest collection is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). Earlier collections have won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction and the Elixir Press Fiction Prize.His story “The Corridors of Longing” is reprinted in Best Small Fictions 2020. An essay “After the Three-Moon Era” appears in Best American Essays 2020. He is co-editor of the anthology series Best Microfiction.