I am preoccupied by Le Roy. I'd like to cruise Main Street and meet the girls. I'd walk with them past the crumbling Victorian storefronts and ask them to take me by the high school. I'd like to see if they stand up to my impression of them. I'm afraid they would disappoint. When I picture the girls of Le Roy, New York they are from a distant era. They do not have cell phones or Facebook accounts or get their news from Twitter feeds. They live in a town as old as the name of theirs sounds. Le Roy was the home of Jell-O. A town that made its money from a slippery dessert and then lost it all when the company left town. If I went to Le Roy I would visit the Jell-O museum.
Here's what happened in Le Roy: No one knows. Some of the parents blame the school. They suspect the chemicals on the lawn, the toxins in the water. Erin Brockovich was called in. The real-life Erin Brockovich. What about runoff from the factories? Old-timers said they knew what flavor Jell-O was being made on any given day based on the color of the river. Industrial waste was discussed. One of the girl's mothers woke up to literature slipped under her doormat about a poorly documented train crash just outside Le Roy in 1970. A massive toxic spill. Chemicals everywhere. Trichloroethylene deep in the soil. Or it could be Pandas—Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcus—when strep throat causes the immune system to change a young person's neurochemistry. The most provocative diagnosis is the hardest to explain. It's called conversion disorder. Conversion disorder is when someone subconsciously converts stress into physical symptoms. It happens to teenagers. It happens to girls. Here it was happening, possibly, to a lot of girls at once. Mass conversion disorder. Mass psychogenic illness. Mass hysteria. It's common in cheerleaders.
This is what it looks like: Faint, flail, stutter, stomp. The girls scratch themselves with the nails at the ends of their swinging hands. Sentences do not start and stop at their command. It moves like a wave. First one girl in English class with frumpy Mrs. Dresmond capsizes across her desk, trapped in its tight frame, her pencil clattering across the floor. Across the hall, in Geography, Mr. Renn and his students hear the cries and turn toward the sounds. Their faces are rapt. A few of the students are standing half-up in their chairs and Mr. Renn's chalk hovers over the chalkboard. Then, from the middle of the room, a girl lets out a moan and snaps her head back in a wild crash. Her hands on the desk meet paper and a zippered bag of colorful pens and she spins them to the ground, grabbing for something sturdy. It spreads from room to room, teachers slamming their doors against the sounds of attacks as they ricochet down the empty hallway. How does the first one start? Do the girls know? Is there a current running through them all that sparks to life while they sit quietly, patiently, dreadfully? I imagine a thin wire. Flick it once and it never stops humming.