MICHELE M. FEENEY
I first noticed Alan Burlington on a third grade field trip I attended
in early October of 1969. I was supposed to be corralling the boys
while a young nun, Sister Maria Alphonse, attended the girls.
When we were blessedly ready to leave the zoo, waiting at the gate
for the bus to pull up, I saw Sister Maria Alphonse counting the
girls, so I counted the boys.
One short. My palms began to sweat. I counted again. Still only
twenty; one short. I walked over to Sister Maria Alphonse. “I’m
missing one,” I whispered. The children milled around us, oblivi-
ous to any expectation that they stay calmly arranged in lines.
“Who?” she asked, lumpy and awkward in a long gray habit.
Her face was beaded with sweat.
“I don’t know.”
She surveyed the crowd of children, then found a roster book
in her bag, and quickly scanned the names, her finger moving
steadily down the page. Every second or so, she looked up and
checked for a face that matched one of the names on the list.
Finally, she said, “Alan Burlington.” Her face was white and her
My first reaction to the name was annoyance. Alan Burlington
had been drifting off from the pack the better part of the afternoon. My next reaction was fear. I knew it would fall to me to
make the call to Sister Albertina. I was the one responsible to keep
track of the boys, and Sister Marie Alphonse had to be at least as
afraid of Sister Albertina as I was.
We had to find Alan Burlington.
I told Sister Maria Alphonse to wait with the children in the
bus. I retraced our steps through the zoo, calling out “Alan!” in
my loudest from-the-pulpit voice and silently praying to St. Jude,
the patron saint of lost souls. As I parted crowds of children,
teachers’ faces fell into the same panicked look Sister Marie Alphonse’s had—they all realized I’d lost a child.
I found Alan, twenty minutes later, sitting behind the snack bar
with his back against the wall, staring off into space, his ankles
bare between the bottom of his pant legs and his sneakers. My
knees went weak with relief.
“You must have heard me yelling—why didn’t you answer?” I
He didn’t even make eye contact. I pulled him to his feet, then
along with me for a few steps. He didn’t seem afraid to have been
lost or happy to be found—he dragged all the way back to the bus,
looking as though he’d just as soon we both disappeared.
From that day on, I avoided laying eyes on Alan Burlington. The
sight of him reminded me I wasn’t worthy to shepherd anyone,
not even a third grader. I only spoke to him once, when I called his
name at the end of the first quarter to come up to the front of the
class for his report card. I didn’t look at the marks he received, and
made no comment one way or the other about his progress. I
couldn’t look at him without remembering my own shame at losing him, and the way he seemed to need something from me I
didn’t give. I also never attended another field trip, finding myself
too busy with church business whenever a request came up.
Sister Marie Alphonse sat in the chair in front of my desk on a cold
Wednesday in late October, twisting her fingers in the cord that
circled the waist of her habit. Only three months on the job, and
I’d already had pregnant teenagers, distraught widows, and dying
farmers in that chair. I’d often looked it and wished it could give
me advice on how to comfort people. They all seemed to need
something from me I couldn’t fathom. Some days, I’d set my coat
on that chair when I came in and pray it stayed undisturbed until it
was time to go back to the rectory.
“Alan Burlington hasn’t been in class for seven days,” Sister
Marie Alphonse said. “Not last week, and not yet this week. Not
since the beginning of this quarter.”
“Gone missing again?” I pictured Alan Burlington, hiding and
dawdling. “Have you looked behind the cafeteria?”
Sister Maria Alphonse’s grave face didn’t lighten.
“Have you spoken to Sister Albertina?” I asked.
“She’s at the mother house through Thanksgiving.”
Why hadn’t I known that? Shouldn’t the school principal ask
my permission to leave for weeks? At least inform me? I leaned
back against my chair, weary. The impossibility of making people
do what they were meant to do washed over me yet again.
“Have you called his parents?” I asked.
“Grandparents,” Sister Maria Alphonse said. “He lives with his
grandparents. They don’t have a phone. I feel I should go out to
the house. I don’t want to go alone. Would you come with me?”
I did not want to go, but Sister Maria Alphonse was even
greener and more timid than me, if such a thing was possible. “I’ll
go,” I said, and took the keys to the parish sedan off the hook near
The family lived out toward Weddleville, the church secretary told
us, west and north of Eudora by about eight miles. We got lost
several times, both being unfamiliar with the dirt roads and hills
of rural Jameson County. Finally, we pulled up in front of a dou-ble-wide trailer. A sheet of cardboard had blown off a front window, and a dog chain lay draped across the front steps, as though
the dog had run off to the west.
I walked up the metal steps to the door and peered through the
I counted the boys.
One short. My palms began to
sweat. I counted again. Still
only twenty. One short.