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Flowers for Amelia Bedelia | The New Yorker

Amelia Bedelia was cleaning the lab. Dr. Strauss had written a list of things for her to do so that she wouldn’t forget. “Dust the microscopes,” she read. She looked everywhere, but the lab was very clean. There wasn’t any dust to put on the microscopes.

Then she remembered the special dust that Dr. Nemur fed to Algernon, the mouse who always beat Amelia Bedelia at ticktacktoe. That must be the dust Dr. Strauss meant! So she got the special dust from the refrigerator and dusted the microscopes.

“No, Amelia Bedelia, no!” yelled Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur, through the window. There was dust everywhere. And an awful lot seemed to have gone straight up Amelia Bedelia’s nose. “Amelia Bedelia,” said Dr. Strauss, “hold your breath!”

Hold your breath? Amelia Bedelia was puzzled. How was she supposed to do that? She put her hands to her mouth and opened her fingers wide so that she could grab onto her breath as it came out. . . . 

She put her hands down again. Dr. Strauss hadn’t meant for her to literally hold onto her breath, like she would hold onto a pie pan or a mop. He’d meant that she should stop her breath. He should have said, “Don’t breathe in, Amelia Bedelia.”

It was too late for that. “Amelia Bedelia, are you O.K.?” asked Dr. Nemur.

“Yes,” said Amelia Bedelia. “At least, I think I am. I’m thinking a lot of new things now. So quickly. I can feel the new thoughts marching out over the corpses of the old thoughts, even before the old ones know they’re dead. But I don’t suppose I’m any worse off now than I was before.”

Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur talked quietly among themselves.

“You aren’t laughing,” Amelia Bedelia said, with a wry smile. “Usually you laugh at me when I make a mistake.”

Dr. Nemur looked flustered. “We never laugh at you, Amelia Bedelia. We laugh with you—”

“How can you laugh with someone who doesn’t get the joke?” asked Amelia Bedelia. “But this isn’t like the other times, is it? When the baseball coach told me to address the ball, so I wrote my address on it. When the teacher told me to take the roll, so I had a student give me a bread roll from his lunch. This isn’t a stupid mistake that you’ll forgive me for when I make a delicious cake later, is it?”

Dr. Strauss explained, “It’s only human nature to laugh when someone misunderstands a simple direction.”

“Certainly,” said Amelia Bedelia. “It makes you feel smarter to laugh at someone who is behaving more stupidly than you. Of course, it doesn’t actually make you smarter. But I suppose there’s no harm in it—as long as you always remember that, somewhere in the world, someone even smarter is laughing at you.”

There was a pause. “You’re scaring me, Amelia Bedelia,” Dr. Strauss said.

“I’m scaring myself,” said Amelia Bedelia. “This is all so new to me. When I was in school, my teachers ignored the obvious signs that I was severely dyslexic, and instead pushed me ahead every year as ‘the dumb one.’ Which wasn’t helped any by a mother who was so ashamed of her daughter that she refused to talk me, to such an extent that I never learned the common idioms you take for granted.”

“We had no idea. . . . ”

“Neither did I, until now. And it was all pretty harmless, too. Until Mrs. McGee made the mistake of asking me to ‘baste the baby.’ ”

Bathe the baby,” corrected Dr. Nemur.

“I heard what I heard,” said Amelia Bedelia, grimly. “On reflection, I suspect that Mrs. McGee had a rather heavy insurance policy taken out on the baby’s life. Look into that for me, would you?”

“Certainly, Amelia Bedelia.”

Amelia Bedelia stared off into space. “It’s all so cruel, isn’t it?” she asked, but it wasn’t a question. “Everything is cruel. Existence is cruel. If only there were some reason behind it. Some purpose . . . ” After a few minutes, she nodded. “Oh, wait. Now I see. It’s so simple. Now I see everything.”

Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur continued watching Amelia Bedelia. They were very still.

“Tell us, Amelia Bedelia,” whispered Dr. Strauss.

Amelia Bedelia looked him in the eyes and smiled. “No,” said Amelia Bedelia. And she laughed and she laughed and she laughed.

“You can come in now,” said Amelia Bedelia. “The catalyst has decayed. I can feel it wearing off. That was all you could make, wasn’t it? Pity.”

Later, she baked a chocolate cake. The other doctors said, “This is the best chocolate cake we’ve ever had, Amelia Bedelia! This is a work of genius!” But Dr. Strauss and Dr. Nemur said that they weren’t hungry.


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