A Topic Too Distressing to Mention

Even after two years, it’s hard to deal with it, with what happened to the girl, and to Janice. It’s a tragedy we don’t speak about.

Janice was scarcely 30 when she came to Claresboro, a newly licensed veterinarian joining Dr. Quigley’s small-animal practice. We knew her family from a long way back–her mother grew up here before moving to the city, and her grandma Paula still owns the flower shop on Minton Street. Her late grandpa had an insurance office and once stood for borough council. As a child, Janice often visited her grandparents in summer and helped out in the store. We old-timers remember the little blonde girl with a ponytail, OshKosh overalls over a striped T-shirt, her colors always blue or green, never pink. She’d pipe in her best grown-up voice, “Can I help you, Mrs. Schloeffel? Did you see the zinnias?” That was what she liked best—the big, bold blooms, not the tiny feverfews or nicotiana.

After college, we heard, she spent several years teaching biology at a private school in the city, then switched careers to enroll in vet school. Such a bright girl, we knew she’d excel in any field. When she took the position with Quigley, we celebrated it as “coming home”; heaven knows that clinic was due for a fresh face. As one of our sharp-tongued ladies put it, Dr. Quigley could compete in the bulldog category at Westminster except that he’d fail comportment.

Right away Janice bought a clapboard bungalow on Linden Avenue, the kind with gingerbread trim on the porch, peaked roof, a little fenced-in yard for her two whippets from a rescue center. Her parents may have helped with the down payment, but a home purchase meant commitment, which the town sorely needed. Since the pottery works downsized, we’ve grown dependent on day-trippers who visit our historic district, antique shops or the museum of vintage farm tools. Two of our handsome Victorian mansions have converted to party venues—weddings and such—and a clutch of downtown stores specialize in souvenir mugs and trinkets. Few young folks stay to make a life in an old county seat; they head 40 miles south to the city, or farther. When you take a turn round the town center on a Saturday afternoon, half the people you pass are tourists. What a lovely quaint place, they think. They don’t realize how much effort it takes to stay lovely and quaint.

That’s one aim of our Tuesday Club. We sponsor modest projects to support the Historical Society, the Women’s Health Clinic, the Parks Department, and our big yearly event, the House & Garden Tour in September to benefit YMCA youth programs. Twenty-three years ago, when we started, somebody pointed out that “Tuesday Club” was the name of an English football gathering. Our Founding President, Esther Prout, said that’s ducky, maybe we can fool some men into coming. Poor Esther, bless her heart, didn’t know that football means soccer in England, but we didn’t mind if people thought us yokels. We were going to be yokels with a purpose.

To be plain, among the ten or so at a typical Tuesday Club meeting, there’s seldom a male to be seen, and the women are mostly “of a certain age”. Over 55, some past 70; widows, shop owners, teachers, a retired family counselor. When we find a younger prospect, we rope her in. That’s why Janice was invited the first time, and we were delighted to reintroduce ourselves to this tall skinny girl with a blonde bob. Soft-spoken, standing very straight, she wore black linen pants and a silky white blouse with three-quarter sleeves. Not what men would call a stunner, yet she had a dignity to her, one might say a presence. She listened politely as half a dozen women she surely couldn’t recollect chattered about her days in grandma’s store. Did she still love zinnias? we asked. “Naturally,” she laughed. “My yard’s going to be full of them.”

She must have found us not too frightfully dull because she continued to come along, once a month, to whichever member’s house we met at, and she volunteered as a monitor for the House & Garden Tour. “The Keenans request that we not touch the crystal,” she murmured again and again firmly, with a smile, towering over those out-of-town ladies who seem to be all fingers.

Janice had top-notch ideas for the Women’s Health Clinic fundraiser; she led our effort on that project, planning the silent auction and gathering donations from area businesses: gourmet cheese baskets, three months of yoga classes, a pair of tickets to a touring Broadway musical in the city. And when she hosted a meeting at her own place, in that cozy living room with vases of cut zinnias, she set out scrumptious desserts—crisp slices of tart made with Asian pears, almonds and caramel. There was a chilled Riesling too, which caused murmurs because no one had served alcohol before; it proved popular enough to become an occasional treat at our meetings. The whippets, one should say, behaved themselves and never had to be crated.

It was in Janice’s second year that we heard about our long-time School Board member’s retirement. The school system covers the entire county, with members elected from nine different regions, and Jim Berko had represented the borough forever. Much of the county is still farms and feedlots, speckled with big modern houses—McMansions, some call them—for the new gentry fleeing the city. Neither the farmers nor the ex-city folk see things the way we do. We have our share of well-set-up people, but more low-income too, more immigrants than the rest of the county, many of them working part-time in the backs of restaurants or with mops in the courthouse. This is why the Tuesday Club took special pride in the auction Janice organized to benefit the Women’s Clinic, where our less fortunate women can get quality medical care.

For the schools, we support enlightened policies to assist the children who need help, whatever their background. Jim Berko reflected our views in principle, though the year they chopped the school lunch program we heard barely a peep out of him. Some of us felt—even those whose children were long grown—that we needed a younger, peppier member on the Board, preferably a woman to balance the old men who ran it.

That’s not a matter for the Tuesday Club, we’re officially nonpolitical, but before the November meeting at Laura Smock’s, people around the refreshment table chatted about the schools. Knowing that Janice had taught, we asked her opinion about school lunches, online classes, several issues. Her answers were quick, bright, articulate. Someone blurted, “You ought to run for the Board!”

“Yes, Janice, do!” others agreed.

“We’ll back you.”

We all laughed, and evidently a seed was planted.

Before the end of the year, rumor had it, she was considering a run, and in February she filed for the Democratic primary. The Democrats among us—a majority of our members, though the borough as a whole is evenly split—invited her to our living rooms to address neighbors. She brought charts, statistics, showed how our school test results lag behind others, and then, setting her displays aside, she said, “Forget about the standardized tests, they’re only a hint of what we need.” She talked about education to help our students become “creative thinkers and doers”; her best line was, “A mind is not a stuffed pepper. You can’t just pack it with ground meat, gobs of rice, a few old spices. You have to help it learn how to work.”

People snickered that many of the current Board members did resemble stuffed peppers.

Janice organized a band of under-thirties to traipse door to door with homemade leaflets. We older ones pitched in by making phone calls for her. Some Republican ladies said they’d vote for her in November if she won the primary. In the flower shop people praised her to her grandma. It helped, too, that she’d become the go-to vet at the clinic. “She has a way with pets, she speaks their language,” one cat owner told us. “You know,” another said, “that young Dr. Janice figured out what’s been ailing my Maxie for months. His stomach is better at last.” (“Thank God,” someone else confided, “we don’t have to hear what the chihuahua threw up today.”)

Her main opponent in the primary, Mr. Garber from the drugstore on Broad, blustered about upgrading our educational technology; the buzz around town said he didn’t think our schools advanced enough for his three precocious tots. “I wouldn’t buy a cough drop from that man,” one of our senior members declared. “Did you see what he’s charging for Pantene conditioner? Janice is going to whup his behind.”

On primary day in May, Janice did.

At the next Tuesday Club meeting, applause broke out as she came in. “Oh, thank you,” she blushed. “Thank you, thank you, but … wait till I actually do something, okay?” That modesty was typical of her, and we loved her for it.

Her Republican opponent for the November general election, Norm Tansy, who owns the Chevy dealership, talked about nothing but waste in school finances. He wanted to trim the budget with a chainsaw. Claresboro has a bumper crop of grinches who’d vote to shut off school furnaces and freeze the kids into popsicles if that would lower property taxes, but we liked Janice’s chances anyhow.

One thing we didn’t guess—her opportunity to “do something” didn’t wait for the election. The trouble broke out without warning.

It was at the School Board meeting in late May. A man stood up in the back and shouted, “What about the ladyboy that’s coming to our high school? What’re you people doing about it?”

From what we heard later, no one in the audience knew what he meant, but the Board did. The president said the matter was “being addressed” and shunted the question aside. When the man demanded to know whether his daughter would “run smack into this pervert in the girls’ locker room,” the president banged his gavel and adjourned the session.

The local paper mentioned the outburst in two cloudy sentences. We had no experience with this kind of thing, didn’t know the proper words to use, and the first reports were so confusing! It turned out that a middle school boy, a ninth-grader who lived right here in town, had begun a “transition,” and his parents had informed the district that he’d register as a girl in the fall, in our high school on the west side of Claresboro. “Transgender girl” was the acceptable term, we learned. “Ladyboy” was an insult, imported from prostitutes in Southeast Asia, which raised suspicions about the loud-mouthed father.

We might have expected Charlie Waters, our high school principal for more than fifteen years, to handle the affair quietly. As Sophie Dilullo said, that’s what he gets paid for and paid mighty well, by our standards. However, within days, one Board member raised a stink, holding a news conference to say that strict rules must be established, that this individual could not be allowed to mingle inappropriately with our precious young women. Rudy Gaithers, from the northwest of the district, was a stuffed pepper if ever there was one. His mug filled our TV screens. “That’s hog country,” someone sniffed at the Tuesday Club in early June, “what do you expect from those people?” Then a second lady used the same phrase for the other side, “those people that always want to make an issue.” Janice was pouring herself decaf at the time, and you could see the cup shake. People glanced at her. As a candidate for the Board, what would she say? But this wasn’t a political event, and though her face looked grim that evening, she kept her mouth shut. Most of us were smart enough to do the same.

Given her druthers, Janice might have kept the argument out of the campaign, but Norm Tansy, her opponent, passed out flyers about the menace to our schools from “sexual predators.” About the same time, we heard that kids were posting snickers and crude jokes on social media. In the last two weeks before summer break, the transgender student’s picture was all over those sites. Somebody trailed him/ her home from school, making a video that showed the front of the house and the street number. For the first time the student’s name was mentioned: Frank O’Brien, who wanted to be known as Fiona.

Why any boy would want to be a girl was beyond our ken. Still, it wasn’t a matter for mockery or fear-mongering. A few of us called Janice to share our outrage at Tansy. Then before we knew it, Janice was on TV—a media conference with the parents outside their home—declaring that Fiona was being taunted in school and online, harassed in her own neighborhood, and the school authorities did nothing to stop it. Janice demanded justice and promised that, as a School Board member, she’d fight for transgender students’ right to use the restroom of their choice and join sports teams matching their new identities. This was a fiery Janice we’d never seen before. She shook her fist. She angled that tall frame of hers around the microphone. With the sun sweeping in from the side, her blonde hair sparked.

Plenty of the town residents blamed both sides for the controversy. How many transgenders were we likely to have? Why should private affairs be flaunted so in public?

On TV, the O’Brien parents flanked Janice with stony looks, “bearing up,” it was said. Without a smidgen of doubt, they loved their child and detested the situation. The child was nowhere to be seen.

At the June Board meeting, the paper reported, Janice staged a walkout. When the president refused to allow open debate on the subject, she stood up in the audience and marched to the door, followed by a third of the spectators and the two most liberal Board members, Jim Berko and one other.

At our July club gathering, Janice was absent, along with some who’d left on vacation. Only seven of us sat in Roni Rosenbach’s living room. When Janice’s name came up, some faces grew blotchy, and not from the warm weather. One member suggested we take a stand on “this transgendering thing,” even though it was against our charter to meddle in politics. Someone else wondered what that stand would be and if we had enough agreement among us. Soon all the ladies chimed in.

—I’ve heard awful gossip. It makes me sick.

—What gossip?

—Well, that Janice is, you know, one of them.

—One of who?

—Come on, we knew her as a girl in her grandma’s shop! She’s always been a girl!

—No, I mean, you know… a lesbian.

—That’s hardly the same. Anyway, who would care whether—

—Has anyone seen her with a man? Just wondering.

—No one’s seen me with a man! Not for twelve years since I put him out. The only one in my bed is my cat.

—She’s a valued member of this club, we shouldn’t let her be subjected to vicious innuendo.

—It’s inevitable, once you get into politics. A dirty business, and she’s jumped right into it, hasn’t she?

—This is worse than usual because of that Norm Tansy, for God’s sake. He’s a bastard son of a jackass, if I can be blunt about it.

—Go ahead and be blunter. I can think of a few other words.

—Please, let’s not resort to profanity.

—If it wasn’t him, it’d be somebody else, that’s for sure.

—But if Janice had just … just let it go, maybe it wouldn’t be such a, such a …

—It was already “such a,” because of Gaithers and Tansy. That train has left the station.

—But I think, I mean, she doesn’t have to descend to their level, does she?

—How is she descending to their level when she speaks up for justice?

We accomplished little at that meeting. There was an air of ill feeling, and afterward most of the ladies no longer wanted to discuss the topic.

Several of us, during the House & Garden Tour in early September, wore pins for Janice, “Great Schools for ALL Our Children.” We had signs in our yards too. That’s how serious it became, campaign gear for a School Board election! She must have financed the printing herself. The signs drew some curious looks from out-of-towners who came to gawk at our dahlias.

By then, though, campaign paraphernalia were the least of it. Once the fall term began, Tansy gave speeches from a makeshift podium in the high school parking lot, where he had no legal right to stand. Janice countered with rallies in the park across the street. When a few of us turned up for Janice’s events, which drew crowds of loud young supporters, we hooted and hollered like the rest of them. One of our members surprised us with her piercing two-fingered whistle. Yokels with a vengeance, we were.

The TV news showed a vehement Janice beside the somber parents, who seemed uncomfortable in public. Once or twice the cameras found the student too, Fiona, pale and small, still looking (one hates to say) like an undernourished boy. The newspaper ran a front-page photo of her, books under her arm, solitary, heading up the steps to school, past other students wearing sidelong smirks. Those of us old enough to recall were reminded of Civil Rights–era images from the South. We heard no more of active taunting, but we could hardly imagine what transpired on social media. Two of us sent letters to the editor of the newspaper, which failed to print them.

Whatever came to pass inside the school itself stayed quiet. Some praised Principal Waters for that. Others thought we ought to know “what’s going on in there.” There were whispered queries: which bathroom was the student using?

The turning point came on October 10, a gloomy Tuesday following Columbus Day weekend. Shortly after Fiona got home from school, buckshot shattered the O’Briens’ kitchen window. No injuries, thank God, except the family Labrador, who cut a paw on shards. The police were stymied when they went house to house asking questions. All along the street, neighbors claimed ignorance.

It was appalling—not just the act, but the silence from people who must have seen. One doesn’t need to be a hunter to know that a shotgun is useless at long range.

Fiona stayed home from school the next day. Reporters thronging the block saw only the repairmen who replaced the glass, until Janice appeared. Standing in the driveway, she was eloquent, bitter. She made it clear that, no matter what one believed about bathrooms and locker rooms, our community could not tolerate violence. She spoke out for humanity and decency. Fiona and her parents, still shunning publicity, never once poked their heads out of the house. Some people said Janice was exploiting the family for political purposes. Others said that was ridiculous, she was defending them.

The family kept Fiona out of school on Thursday, Friday, till on Friday night, in her bedroom… This is very hard to say… She hanged herself from a closet door. The poor, poor child…

Word spread that she was just short enough for her toes to dangle above the carpet.

An image we can never erase. 

The family kept the funeral service private. Hypocrite Tansy issued a statement of sympathy for their loss. Janice’s campaign, after expressing shock and sorrow, fell silent, and the parents refused all interviews. To our everlasting disgrace, the city news outlets picked up the story, citing Claresboro as one more example of national hysteria and intolerance.

At our Tuesday Club later that month, we delicately probed for updates on Janice. One lady who’d taken her Pekingese to the clinic reported that Janice was absent. Another said that Janice’s grandma at the flower shop had buttoned her lips.

Hearsay had it, started perhaps by a stray word from the grandmother, that Janice blamed herself for the suicide. Of course, no sane person held her responsible, but we all kept our heads low, wishing this awful visitation would pass over us.

Tansy tempered his comments in the final weeks, now the transgender issue was moot, and Janice’s campaign went into hibernation: no speeches, no flyers. On Election Day in November, Tansy won by 3 percent.

Once the contest ended, we hoped to see Janice at meetings. Yet no one, as far as we knew, reached out to her again, and she never reappeared at the Tuesday Club.

By December we heard that her house was on the market and she’d left Dr. Quigley’s practice. The whispers were faint but cruel. They said Janice, like Fiona, must have been psychologically fragile. They said leaving her first career as a schoolteacher had something to do with “this type of thing.” They said she should stick to treating dumb animals.

Fiona’s bereaved parents left town as well, and we went mum about the episode.

For many of us it had felt like tumbling into a vat of ice water. One doesn’t easily get over the shock to the system.

Yet it wasn’t long before shame set in. Some of the toxic gossipers had regrets; you could see it on their faces when conversation turned to children or schools. And those of us who’d backed Janice, we had second thoughts too. Could we have done more to stand up to the gossip? Why hadn’t we called Janice after the tragedy, sent notes, stopped by her house? The O’Briens. Could we have reached out to them? Was there any chance we could have reconciled…

So far, the issue hasn’t reared its head again in Claresboro, not in public. We should thank our lucky stars.

Because when it comes right down to it, we were cowards.

The Tuesday Club goes on. Among all the ladies now, whatever their opinions, the tragedy is smothered in silence. It’s too distressing to mention. It doesn’t suit the way we like to think about our town, or ourselves.

Photo by Umesh R. Desai on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Sam Gridley

Sam Gridley is the author of three books of fiction, most recently The Bourgeois Anarchist (Finishing Line Press, 2021). His fiction and satire have appeared in more than sixty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog and hangs out at the website Gridleyville.blog.