Clodhoppers

Missy parks her clodhoppers in the middle of the room, right in front of the television. These are her shoes; they are big, size nine, which are two sizes larger than her mother’s shoes. Sometimes, her mother calls these shoes “boats.”

“Why don’t you park your boats in your room?” Or sometimes and most often, she calls them clodhoppers. “Get those clodhoppers out of the middle of the floor.”

Missy carries them into her room. She stares at her own feet as they spread across the floor. The massive dots of pink nail polish on her toes remind her of fat women in floral dresses. The floral dresses, like the pink polish, are hiding something that no one wants to admit.

Kicking violently, Missy forces her shoes under her bed where she hides all her shoes. Shoes that fit her and shoes that don’t. Often her mother “spring cleans” the house and fills large bags of household items to donate to charity: out-of-style or too small clothes, out-grown toys, scratched and dented pans, purses, belts, and shoes. One of the major stops is Missy’s room. Cleaning was often a sign that her mother had completed some major project at work and was yet another step in the slow upward clawing to middle-class. However, there has not been any cleaning in over a month and Missy is worried. Nudging all the heels and the toes that poke out, she hides these clodhoppers with the rest. Her mother dislikes them and so must she.

Under her bed, her shoes sail across the carpet circling a moat of dragons and serpents, like floating plastic ducks, but larger or like boats in a harbor, but less subdued. Missy imagines that if she were to look under her bed, she’d have to come face to face with something that both she and her mother are denying. If the carpet were the sea, her clodhoppers would make a storm, splashing waves all murky brown.

Sitting in front of the television, Missy flips channels, settling on nothing particular. She watches music videos, reruns of Buffy, portions of old movies, the weather channel, interviews, infomercials, and sitcoms. But nothing is on. She picks up the phone and calls Chelsea.

In the kitchen, her mother is banging pots and chopping vegetables. This is the signal that Missy better come and help soon, or else. There’s not a moment to spare. Not a second of lying around or lulling on the couch entertaining one’s thoughts. Every breath must be an exertion of production; this is her mother’s philosophy, thinks Missy.

Chelsea is chipper, “So, are you coming with us or not?”

“I haven’t asked.”

“Well ask. The worse part will be the sailing, but mostly we can lay-out or swim.”

“I’ve never sailed before,” says Missy, picking at her toenails as she scrapes off the polish that missed her nail and left her skin streaked with pink. “I don’t know if I can. I mean, what if I fall in?”

When she was little, Missy took swimming lessons in a clear pool where the bottom was marked by corners. The deepest point was a drain like a large mouth waiting to suck her in. Missy liked learning how to swim, pushing her arms through the water, and looking at the soundless half bodies around her. Sometimes, she would sink beneath the surface to play tea party alone and wait to see how long she could hold her breath. Seconds would tick by and she would be in absolute solitude with her thoughts. In her class, she was the student who was always able to stay under the longest.

After each set of lessons were completed, Missy was allowed to proceed to the next level: tadpole, minnow, eel, walrus, swordfish, dolphin, and then shark. Her mother would give her a hug and say, “Congratulations! I bet you can’t wait to start the next level.”

As Missy listens to Chelsea explain sailing and the limited possibility of overturning the boat, she knows she is supposed to be an achiever. Like her mother, she should never show weakness or fear to others. Her mother has no fear and never cries. When Missy cries, her mother calls her “scaredy baby.” But Missy can’t help it. In the shower, with the radio on, Missy cries alone.

“Listen, Missy, if you can swim, you have nothing to worry about. Besides, we might even get to go snorkeling,” says Chelsea. Chelsea is a born and bred beach girl. Her parents used to own property in a small tourist town known for its quiet beaches and perfect sailing harbor. Several weeks after her parents moved to the big city, they began spending each weekend back in the town.

“I’ll call you back,” Missy hangs up and heads into the kitchen, plucking carrot chunks from her mother’s freshly made salad. Sitting on one of the stools, Missy munches as her mother stirs the sauce for the pasta.

“I have big plans for us this weekend,” her mom begins, as she sips red wine from her glass and absentmindedly wipes her hands on a towel. “I thought we could check out that new craft store on the north side of town. I’ve heard they have an exquisite selection of fabric.”

Her mom continues raving about the craft store, as she adds mushrooms and green onions to the sauce. As an afterthought, she pours straight from the bottle a generous helping of red wine into the bubbling burgundy concoction.

Last night, Missy woke up at three and as she willed her eyes open, the sounds of the kitchen drifted into her room. Her mother often stayed up till dawn perfecting some assignment for work. Sometimes, there were other voices, male or female, in hushed tones laughing. In the mornings, Missy would get up first to find empty wine bottles in the sink and red spills dried on the counter or her mother’s work carefully packed up and ready for the day. Missy had learned not to ask direct questions because if she did her mother send her away or told her to mind her own business.

Cloistered in her bed last night, Missy did not hear those signs of her mother’s life; instead she heard sobbing and glass shattering on the tile. Because her mother was not a crier, she lay breathless unable to move. Each sob further pinned her into bed while she tried to convince herself that this was not her room and this noise was not from her mother. In the morning when Missy hesitantly got up, there were red sticky spills throughout the house.

Watching her mother prepare dinner, Missy looks for signs of explanation of last night knowing there will be none. Pulling breadsticks from the oven, her mother beams through her tasks and takes long pulls on her wine. Clutching the edge of the stool, Missy hangs on, refusing yet wanting to see something out of the ordinary.

Missy knows her mom is an amazing cook; her friends “ooh” and “ah” at meal while her mom beams and asks them what kinds of meals their parents cook. Missy yearns for macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, grilled cheese or take-out pizza, but what she gets is vermicelli flan, taliarini with gorgonzola, and marinated eggplant on a bed of linguine. Missy could spend hours in the kitchen learning to cook and working recipes over until they are just right. She could be perfect.

“Missy, you can knit a mean scarf. I think it’s time for an upgrade. I think this weekend we should try for a cap. You can knit and I’ll make new curtains for your bedroom. Won’t that be fun.” Her mom says the last sentence as a statement rather than a question. She always tells Missy how to feel, how to understand, when there is fun, and when there is not.

Carrying the salad to the table, Missy realizes that it’s her mother or Chelsea. The sounds of last night’s sobs reverberate in her head. “Mom, Chelsea’s parents are going to the beach this weekend and they want me to go.”

“Oh,” her mother begins.

“I want to learn how to sail and Chelsea is the only person I know who knows how.”

Rearranging her salad with the dressing now added, her mother stabs at a green pepper and examines it without eating. “What time would you be leaving?”

“Tonight, at eight.”

“Oh, Missy, I just don’t think….”

“No Mom, you don’t understand, sailing starts bright and early in the morning and we are going both days. In two days, I’ll be an expert. They’ll call me Captain Missy. And her dad is really into danger scenarios. He’s always asking: ‘If you’re on a life raft in the middle of the sea and you have no drinking water what do you do?’ or ‘If a storm comes up out of nowhere and your sail is up, what do you do?’ It will be an education. I need this, or I guess I could stay home and watch television. There’s a Buffy marathon on this weekend.”

Her mother raises one delicately pruned eyebrow and pops the green pepper into her mouth. She chews evenly. “You will have fun. You can go, but you have to pick up your room before she gets here.”

In Missy’s bedroom, it is eight o’clock and her room is neat if not clean. Her mother’s green afghan is spread on the bed with the stuffed animals her mother made propped against her hand-stuffed pillows. Missy tucks the last essentials into her backpack: swimsuit, sunblock, a book, sunglasses, and a towel. Carefully toeing the edge of her bed, she pulls out two pairs of shoes: white sandals and rubber-soled sneakers.

On her feet she puts on the large white clodhoppers; sandals that do not hide her enormous feet but rather accentuate them. She wishes they were black, because Chelsea says that black makes you look thinner. Missy’s feet have gone from seven to nine in a year. At this rate what size will I wear when I’m eighteen, Missy wonders.

Missy wishes that other things could grow in this fashion: her skill at crafts or
schoolwork. If she could only will something into perfection, make something just happen without having to try and work at it. Missy knows her mother worked hard and struggled at new tasks, but she always acted as if everything were a breeze. When her mother lost sixty pounds one year, her aunt asked her how she did it and Missy’s mother had said, “Oh, you know, it was just so easy. I just changed a few things, cut this and this out of my diet and voilà. It was magic, the weight just disappeared. It was really no work at all.”

This is not the case for me, I have to work at everything, Missy thinks. Everything except the growth of my feet; my feet are in the lead and I’m losing. Just then there’s a honk and Missy flies out the door, yelling goodbye.

The next morning, Missy, Chelsea and her parents are out on the harbor by eight. Chelsea gives Missy a motion sickness pill and Missy is relieved. She feels slightly calm and the rocking sea is almost unnoticeable and wishes that she had a pill for fear; instead she has her mother. In her mother’s life there is no such thing as fear. There is no time for it. As the waves rock the boat, Missy remembers the slick terror of diving. The long board, the wet rough sandpaper texture, and the vibrations each step made. The wind whips her hair, like the wind up on the high dive and a chill sends shivers along Missy’s skin.

In order to become a swordfish and finish the level, each student in the swim class had to learn to dive from the high dive. Missy made the mistake of telling her mother she was scared. A week before the final test for the class, Missy’s mother took her to the pool on the weekend. In the car ride over, her mother informed her that she would learn to like the high dive and that they were not leaving the pool until Missy had dived from that board several times. Inside the gates, kids played everywhere. Six life guards sat in their chairs and surveyed the mayhem, occasionally blowing their whistle or kicking a kid out.

Tears mulled in Missy’s eyes. As she smeared lotion on her arms before approaching the pool, her mother said, “Don’t be a scaredy baby, you’re embarrassing me. Diving is easy. We’ll be here until you’ve learned how to.” Walking over to the showers, Missy drenched herself thoroughly before climbing slowly into the deep end.

All afternoon, Missy swam and dived, but never once from the high dive. She avoided her mother who sought her eyes, but when Missy glanced at her, lying on the chair and oiling her body, her mother shot her disapproving glances and finally just ignored her altogether. With an hour to spare before closing time, her mother appeared as a shadow over Missy as she floated on a pink noodle.

“Get out. Now,” her mother whispered in her you’ve-gone-to-far tone. Missy did as she was told. “Now, to the diving board.” Missy walked just in front of her mother watching her feet make the water spread on the wet pavement. Following and nudging her all the way to the top, Missy’s mother forced her out onto the high board.

Missy turned, the wind chilling her skin. “Mom, I can’t do this,” she said.

Her mother had the smile for strangers on her face: happy, normal, and as slicing as broken glass. “Yes, you can. I don’t have time for this behavior.” Glancing at the lifeguards and other parents, her mother raised one eyebrow and gave her daughter a push.

“Please,” Missy begged.

With another shove, her mother said, “This is for your own good. Now jump.”

Closing her eyes and counting to three, Missy bounced and then stopped. The water below reflected the sky and looked dark and depthless. Bodies noiselessly splashed and watched her like an audience, knowing she’d lost her lines. The sound of her breath was raw in her mouth, like she’d been screaming. Her eyes felt puffed and dry from the chlorine, and the breeze made her skin sticky as she stood unable to move.  Behind her, her mother was talking but the words were not audible.

Almost by accident Missy jumped and as the air whizzed by she pressed her hands together in the diving position. Closing her eyes, she held her breathe and dove into the water. Rising to the surface once, she regained her breath and sank below the water, the only place she felt safe. Under she stayed, watching the bubbles float along her body. Her mother’s body whirled by from a perfect dive, not seeing her. Below, there was nothing, only silence. A void so complete, Missy was unsure if she was dreaming, if she was real.

When Missy resurfaced again, the pool shrieked into sound, like a crowd at a game. Everyone was talking but nothing made sense. Laughter, cries, and shouts bounced along the water and pounded into her ears. Way above her, the high dive pronged into the blue sky and like a tongue it wiggled, launching each diver into the water. For several minutes, Missy held onto the edge of the pool afraid that she was still up there, clutching the hand rail unable to dive.

As Missy watches the waves of the ocean around them, she feels like she is about to dive. With each glance back at the receding shoreline, she feels her feet on the rungs of the steps to the high dive. Missy tells herself she doesn’t have time for fear.

Chelsea’s parents stay below as the girls sit in the front by the net. This boat is more of a catamaran than a sailboat. Two large runners keep the boat afloat, with the cabin mostly above water level. In the front, suspended between the two runners is a black canvas net. Waves splash over it occasionally, but mostly run below it untouching. They spread sunblock on each other’s back and watch the coast line recede and the ocean envelop them. The sky is partially cloudy, which makes the ocean not blue and not green, but a slate gray. The farther they move from the land, the more white caps appear.

In the distance, a ferry is crossing from one side of the harbor to the other. “Watch for dolphins,” says Chelsea from sunglasses and a boatman’s cap, complete with the local beach logo. “They like to play in the wake.” Her golden curls pull and flatten in the sea breeze. Taking off her cap, she loosely plaits her hair while watching the waves. As they near the slow moving ferry, four dolphins swim through the waves. Their long dark bodies jump and move, disappear and reappear closer or farther off, like they are herding the ferry and the boat into the right direction. Missy watches her sneakers soak up the seawater as it splashes. She wears jean shorts and a tee-shirt over her bathing suit, which she knows isn’t nearly as cool as Chelsea’s surf pants and bikini. Missy creeps closer to the net and lets her whole leg rest there.

The water is warm and surprising; each splash is as expected as it is not. Missy had anticipated it to be icy and sharp. The water soaks into her jean shorts and spreads in shapes like the red spills in her mother’s house and while watching her legs, she expects blood to run from the places the water grazes. On several occasions, Missy had wiped up the wine stains from the floors and counters. After rinsing out her dishrag her hands would bleed where slivers of glass made ribbons of flesh. The blood would seep, following the creases of her palm, making tiny trails and drop into the sink. If she washed her hands, the blood would come again and she learned to wait until it dried to gently dab the red away. As Missy watches her legs, she imagines blood continuously trailing down; it blackens once it hits the water and is sucked below into the ocean.

Chelsea’s dad comes up behind them and watches the sea. “We’re making progress, in another twenty minutes we’ll be in the best place to sail today,” he says this to both of the girls and to no one. It’s like he’s telling the ocean the requirements he has of the day and nothing more. In front of them, the ocean plunges ominously, a flat line stretching across their view. Out there, no birds skirt the sky. Clamping his hand on his daughter’s shoulder he speaks again, mostly to himself, “You can take the girl out of the ocean, but you can’t take the ocean out of the girl.” His brow furrows as he squints into the sun beaming between the clouds. “Twenty minutes.”

Missy bounces her foot on the net as little droplets of water jump and fall, like shards of glass. Missy’s gray sneakers stain in the water, brim over with liquid. Like when painted by the dirt and wear of time, they will never look the same. Ruined. Garbage. Chelsea probably has no such word attached to her body; Clodhoppers, thinks Missy, what a horrible word. Clodhoppers. Dirt jumpers. Mud fliers. Trench climbers. Outdoor runners. Rock bouncers. Dust fleers. Hill sailors. Mountain ascenders. Flat splashers. Tundra travelers. Brown attainers. Black racers. Ocean fearers. Missy feels like a frog or maybe a pig, rather than a dolphin or a Chelsea. The label sounds like an ad for a distorted version of the cool new shoe for boys. And she’s not a boy. She’s a girl with clodhoppers and boats on her feet.

Watching the water, Missy tries to imagine the sea as a swimming pool, but she can’t. In the pools she has been in, Missy could always see the entire pool, every edge and corner. From every angle, Missy could see all around her while sitting with her feet dangling in the water and could watch stray leaves float along the bottom of the swimming pool. Looking out into the waves, Missy realizes that the ocean is not something she wants to touch; it is something she does not want to sink into and look around.

They sail. Or to be correct, Chelsea’s parents sail as the girls hold on and watch from the boat, the wind flying in their face. The father holds the rudder and calls out orders. Chelsea’s mom moves back and forth, switching lines, pulling in sails and letting others out. The tiny boat dips into the sea while salt water soaks every inch, waves suck the sides and the wind snaps the sails. Hanging onto the middle of the boat, Missy sees the ocean as thick and menacing. The water is like sludge or quicksand that once under the surface, there is no getting out. The ocean is a huge blanket, a wall, and everything that goes in is trapped forever under.

“This is great!” says Chelsea, slowing making her way to Missy, who has her arm wrapped around the metal steps.

“I don’t feel so well,” says Missy with fingers gripping the grooved metal.

“I always used to get seasick, too, until I got my sailing legs. Do you want another motion sickness pill? They’re great.”

“Thanks,” says Missy, swallowing the pill dry.

“I take them sometimes for fun,” Chelsea winks, “They make me feel floaty. This one weekend, when I was younger, a huge storm crept up on us and I took two. I think I would have just died without the pills. I was so scared.”

“I’m not scared to sail,” says Missy.

“I didn’t mean that you were. They’re for seasickness anyways.”

Missy does not hear her last statement; the world is wrapped in silence. The sky is gray with slivers of blue bleeding through. The ocean is splinters of slate, carving into the boat and sky. The only sound is Missy’s uneven breath.

By late afternoon, the wind dies and the group munches on cheese and meat on crackers. They sip pop from chilled cans and are gently lulled by the rocking. “If you fall overboard without a life vest, what do you do?” the father asks and breaks the silence.

“You swim back,” offers Missy, high from the pills Chelsea feeds her when no one else is looking.

“You wait,” chimes in Chelsea.

“Ah, you’re both right, my sailing girls,” he exclaims. “If it’s a motor powered boat, you wait. Tread water or float on your back, simple. If it’s a row boat, you can swim back, but slowly. You have to conserve energy and the boat has more power than you do.” Clearing his throat and taking a long swallow from his can of pop, the father says, “Now, what do you do if you start to sink?”

“You die!” Chelsea laughs and throws a fish cracker into her mouth.

The father’s eyes shift to Missy, “What do you think?”

“You take off anything heavy?” says Missy blushing slightly and imagining herself sinking slowly. The opening of the ocean wide, the floor covered in glass teeth. On this floor, there are no sticky red spills.

“Excellent! Yes. Take a deep breath and stop kicking, reach down and take off boots, jeans, jackets or drop bags. Everything is lighter in the water, but many things will pull you down. Modesty or death, that’s your choice.”

“Oh, Dad! You’re so dramatic,” says Chelsea, tilting her head back and laughing lightly like bells. There was affection between them.

“Alright, men, to your spaces. We have one more stop before heading back.”

The boat ambles along and heads to the coast and into a cove. A beach lies empty but wreathed in trees, vegetation and rock. As they enter, the sails are pulled in and the trolling motor is dropped into the water for an easy approach. The water is crystal clear and dark fish dart below. “Come on,” Chelsea says, heading into the cabin and stripping down to her bikini. Missy does the same. She stares consciously at her feet below cloaked in clodhoppers. Chelsea grabs snorkels and kick boards, handing each one to her friend.

“Girls, when you hear the whistle, head back. Remember, I can’t come get you in here, it is too shallow. And watch for feeder sharks.”

“Right, Dad.” Chelsea eases off the stairs and jumps into the lukewarm water and starts kicking off.

Missy gazes at the cove. It is smaller than the ocean, though much larger than any swimming pool she’d ever been in. About the size of football field, it is lined with rocks on the outer edge and a narrow strip of beach on the other. The boat mostly blocks the only way into or out of the cove. Leaning over the edge, Missy looks down into the water and sees the sand and coral below. Shapes waver and change. How deep is it, Missy wonders, could I stand on the bottom? Missy hesitates before jumping in and eyes the father for details. This is definitely not a swimming pool, “I don’t know how to snorkel.” Because Missy feels high, her thoughts float into and out of her mind, as if on their own accord. As the water laps the boat edge and Missy’s feet, she hears her mother’s sobs. The beach far in the distance looks covered with her islanded shoes that were supposed to stay hidden under her bed. Watching her hand holding the kick board, Missy sees the hair on her knuckles glint in the wavering sun. I should shave those, she thinks.

“It’s easy,” he says, “just put your face in the water and kick. Keep an eye on one another and you’ll be fine.” With a little shove, Missy finds herself in the water. Silently blessing the motion sickness pill, Missy gently strokes over to her friend. She holds the kick board and goggles in one hand. This is just a pool, Missy chants to herself, I don’t have time for fear. There is nothing to be afraid of, as she imagines the water pulling her down, pushing her under, and keeping her there. Anxiety is a wet and thick blanket that chokes. On the beach, Missy almost sees her mother holding a dripping glass of red wine.

Kicking fast, she catches up to Chelsea. Chelsea lifts her head out of the water and smiles around the large snorkel mouth piece. “This is fun, yeah!”

Missy giggles nervously, “The ocean or your pills?”

Chelsea hushes her friend with a tiny splash and winks. “You’re on your own now. If they wear off, you probably won’t notice. We can get more tomorrow, though.”

Feeling something brush by her leg, Missy asks, “How do I do this?” Chelsea shows her how to spit into the goggles, how to breathe, and blow water out of the mouth piece.

“The rest is easy. Just kick and watch. Every once in a while, look up and see where you are.”

Missy does this and follows her friend for awhile. Sinking her head underwater and looking through the goggles, Chelsea points to several small bright blue fish swimming near the coral. Missy kicks slowly, going over the coral and watching the life beneath. Constantly, she moves her head to find Chelsea, large silver fish with blue stripes, and clown fish. There are as many fish as they have at a pet shop, but moving with more life and swimming with more velocity. Snorkeling makes her uneasy. She tells herself, look at the fish, look at the fish. Missy wants to be perfect at this, but feels panic. Maybe another pill, she thinks. Touching the bottom here seems very unlikely. The boat is far away. The beach far away. The rocks, like razors. The seaweed, slimy. She sees a large patch of the seaweed moving towards her, coming closer and she swims away as quickly as possible.

Not enough air. Missy raises her head often and scans her surroundings. The snorkel is hard to breathe in and salt water gets into her mouth. Her lungs burn and she can’t get the taste of the ocean out of her mouth. Something passes by her leg, she is sure, back underwater, Missy tells herself to look at the fish. At some point, Missy loses Chelsea and finds herself drifting alone. Lifting her head up, she eyes her situation, her stomach in a knot. The sky is cast with more clouds and the water around her looks gray rather than clear. Across the small cove, the boat bobs slightly. If Chelsea’s parents are on there, Missy cannot see them, but she is close to the beach and could swim there in one breath. She spots Chelsea swimming near the boat. It’s the beach or miles of water, Missy is sure. One long breath and a few kicks. There are exactly four steps on a diving board and exactly two seconds from the board to the water. Fear is the crack of the board. A quick gulp of air.

Taking off her goggles and holding the kickboard, Missy swims towards the beach. For several minutes she stands on the sand, her skin raised in goosebumps in the wind. Biting the inside of her cheek, she wonders if the boat can pick her up from where she is, though she doubts it. As she begins to dry, digging her toes into the sand, her mother’s sobs ring in Missy’s ears. All across the kitchen floor, there had been red stains and glass in various sizes of shatter. While her mother slept, she had carefully swept the glass into a pile and threw it away. Then, on her hands and knees she wiped the sticky spots as best as she could. In the bathroom, it was worse.

Missy relaxes in the warm sun and lies in the sand, shielding her eyes from the sun. Every few minutes, she rolls over to get an even tan. I’ve escaped, Missy thinks. If I just wait here, I won’t have to snorkel anymore. When Chelsea’s father whistles, I will just back stroke to the boat. I don’t have to do this. Behind her, the palms rustle in the breeze as the water barely laps against the sand. The sun periodically winks into and out of the clouds, like it wants to reveal something but can’t, not yet, it’s too soon, Missy thinks.

Finally too hot to lie anymore, Missy walks along the beach ankle deep. She observes shells, but no fish. Wading in a little farther, she ambles along knee deep, and then waist deep. I don’t want to do this, Missy tells herself. She turns and eyeballs seven steps to the beach. Turning again, the boat bobs at the mouth of the cove. Standing still, she stares at the boat. A hundred steps? A thousand breaths? Missy slams her kickboard into the water. How much longer with this distance, Missy wonders, how long till this is over?

Dolphins swim near the boat, their fins and bodies breaking the surface of the calm cove. The parents lean over the boat’s edge, absorbed in the animal’s play. There is no way I can go back now, Missy thinks. I’ll either scare the dolphins off or go back way before the whistle sounds. Letting out a deep breathe, Missy puts her head in the water. Kicking again, Missy glides and aims herself in another direction, towards the other side of the cove. A small trio of stingray shuffle along the sand, leaving tiny puffs in their wake. Watching them, she thinks of a television show she once saw on diving and snorkeling. She remembers the relaxation the divers embodied as they carefully pointed out the underwater life and the way they seemed to let go of the busyness of daily life. Unlike other shows, there was nothing they had to prove to one another. All they had to do was be, to look, and absorb. As Missy swims, watching a school of tiny fish wax and wane below her, something uncoils inside her. There is nothing in her head but what is before her. There is no diving board or swimming pool. There are no boundaries or edges. There is no level to surpass and no one to impress. She feels weightless. Long strands loosen inside her.

A whistle sounds and slices her meditation back to anxiety. Missy looks up and it calls again. The boat seems so far away and her arm muscles ache slightly from holding the kickboard. If she lets go, she could drown and lay at the bottom of the ocean while fish nibble at her eyes. She could die. Taking a deep breath, Missy aims towards the boat paddling. After what feels like twenty minutes, Missy raises her head again but the boat seems hardly closer. The whistle again. Missy floats silently, not kicking her feet or moving her arms, but letting the water hold her. Missy thinks she sees Chelsea climb up onto the boat and then stand along the edge looking out. Maybe they’ll leave me, Missy thinks, and I won’t have to do this. Chelsea and her family are watching me and expecting me to do this until I have it right. The coil tightens again. She descends.

As she sinks, she sees the floor of the bathroom slick with red. Along the tile, in dribbles and dots drying puddles lead to the open maw of the toilet. The scarlet followed the hexagon shape of the tiles, and looked in places like half completed game boards. In the window, delicate yellow curtains fanned softly into the room. An odor wafted in the small space, like dirty clothes or earth. On this floor there was no glass.

Setting aside the broom and dust pan, Missy gingerly tip-toed towards the white basin of the sink and toilet. The sink was streaked with wine and an unbroken wine glass lay discarded against the porcelain. In the toilet, the water was blood red and pink diaphanous clouds of toilet paper filled the bowl. In the center of the cloud was one dark and thick red mass, just larger than a quarter. For the first time, Missy realized that the stains on the bathroom might not be wine.

Missy drops further underwater, looking at the coral beneath her. She kicks slightly, landing on the sand below. Touching the bottom, it is rippled and solid beneath her fingers. Pretending to play tea party, she looks around. Above, the surface of the water is mirror like, below the coral life breezes along and floats. Animals move gently along, none looking at her or caring what she does. This is where she wants to be, Missy realizes. This is what she wants to feel, always.

Needing to breathe, she goes to the surface and then descends again. A small jelly fish swims just by her face, the center of it is pink. As Missy watches it, she knows that she’s seen something like this before. Something small and alive, floating. Bubbles escape from her mouth in protest. Noticing her own body, she sees that she is still wearing her grey sneakers. Missy reaches down and pulls off her shoes and lets them sink to the dark rocks below. Clodhoppers. They are boats out of commission after a battle. Like wreckage, they lay on the sand forgotten. And with them goes the coil. And without them, she rises without effort. In her mind, she sees the blob of pink tissue swirling in the toilet as she flushed it away. She wiped the floor, until every trace of blood was gone. The wine, the glass, and the blood, gone. Swallowed.

Kicking faster now that she is lighter, Missy heads towards the boat. She sees the belly with fish swimming under it, and as she nears the stairs and sees two feet waiting for her, Missy takes one last look. The sand below, the fish just off to the side, the dark blue expanse melting into itself all around her, and blows out bubbles from her mouth. Sinking deeper, Missy accepts the uncertainty and lack of boundaries. The ocean is not like a pool. There are no edges that she can see and there is no drain. The trio of stingrays swims out of the cove just beneath her, she watches them go and rises.

Raising her head above water, Missy calls. “Hey, now what?”

The father appears, “Quite a show down there. Head around back and climb up.”

“Thanks,” Missy says, as Chelsea’s dad helps her up and Chelsea takes the snorkel and kickboard. Climbing back to the net, Missy and Chelsea looks towards the coast as the boat closes in on the harbor. Missy feels exhausted, but energized. The sky shifts from blue to pink, with purple lining the clouds. Shoeless, she leans against the boat and wonders what could grow and die and what could leave a mark not to be discussed. She closes her eyes and sees her mother sleeping as she did yesterday morning. Next to her mother’s cheek on the pillow is the pink and red blob of human tissue Missy rescued from the toilet just in time before it was swept away. Like a tiny heart, it glistens perfectly.

 

 

Laura Madeline Wiseman is an award winning writer teaching in the southwest. Her works have appeared in 13th Moon, The Comstock Review, Fiction International, Poetry Motel, Driftwood, apostrophe, Moondance, Familiar, Spire Magazine, Colere, Clare, Flyway Literature Review, Nebula, and other publications. She is the Literary Editor for IntheFray and a regular contributor to Empowerment4Women.

Progress Toward a Proof

https://i2.wp.com/www.ninetymeetingsinninetydays.com/images/protractor.jpg?resize=307%2C230

Alone in the math hall, scrunched in a one-armed desk, I prayed that if my dad swept by, he’d think I was taking a make-up test. As the janitor’s son, though, I was never allowed to be absent, so what would I ever need to make up?

Praying to God made me a hypocrite, since I didn’t much believe in Him.  I sure believed in the Father, though.  Nobody doubted my dad’s existence.  The opposite of our Catholic God, whose invisibility irritated me, my father showed up everywhere, enormous despite his small stature.

Still, I didn’t worship at Dad’s altar like many of the faculty and students.  I did not seek his esteem with small offerings of expensive whiskey in gift bags, or bleed gratitude on fancy note paper (“Oh, dear Willie, muchas, muchas graciasfor helping with the skeletons for our Day of the Dead celebration!  I don’t know how I could ever teach Spanish without you! –Muchos, Muchos Abrazos, Senora Johannsen”).

I spent a good deal of my energy that fall trying to avoid my dad’s laughing, bustling omnipresence. I envied other high school juniors with normal fathers, remote paycheck providers who disappeared into the redwood mill for double shifts or worked at sea on salmon trawlers for days at a time. Instead, each day began with my father bursting through my bedroom door first thing in the morning (“Gitup, damn it!  You’re already late!”).  Often, I ended the night with him, too, helping out on his moonlight-janitor jobs.  Smelling like cleaning solvents, riding shotgun in his rusted Ford pickup, I’d fall asleep on the short drive home, only to wake, his elbow jabbing my arm (“Gitup, Frankie!  We’re home, and it’s already past your bedtime–”).

In between those “Gitups!” Dad could be in my company or in sight every other hour of our day.  If I weren’t so desperate for an extra minute of sleep in the morning, I’d have walked the mile to school in blessed solitude.  Instead, I only had time for a swig of coffee and a slice of cold toast.  (I’m not even going to mention how my mom set up the coffee before she hustled to the five-thirty shift in the high school cafeteria.  Who would believe that my mother also worked at the school?)  I’d dash into the cold dark Pacific damp to catch my shotgun seat in Dad’s pickup and stumble into my Commercial Art class just in time to hear Ms. Packer greet me with, “Did your dad mention anything about my big acrylics order arriving yet, Frankie?”

For those of us taking zero period’s before-school electives, it was still dark when class started at 6:55.  As that November progressed, I’d catch my reflection in Packer’s windows, my miserable, sleepy face caught in buzzing fluorescence.  Would I ever wake from this hellish, daily nightmare?  Of course not.  My dad would swing into class, his short trunk hidden behind packages, then await his reward: Packer clapping with happiness over tubes of paint, then squeezing his arm and patting his wavy copper hair.

His pleasing ways at school didn’t quite match his temper at home, where he’d fly into a rage if I jammed a gear while he was teaching me to drive, or raise holy hell with my poor mom if she forgot to stock his favorite brand of cod-liver oil.

With his over-rewarded chore done, Dad wouldn’t hesitate to linger in class.  He teased the prettiest girls until they granted giggles, then praised the plain ones’ art techniques.  He couldn’t leave to do his real job, of course, until he’d stopped by my desk to critique my project, an anti-tobacco ad which–thank God he didn’t know–was already two days overdue.  “Good work, Frankie.  You know, I smoked my whole life until your mom got TB.  Her doc told me how bad it was for her, so I quit–”

“I know, Dad.  Cold turkey.”

“Yep, cold turkey.  So when you were born, my little turkey, you never had to breathe a breath of smoke…”  He squeezed the back of my neck and sauntered off, catching Packer’s blown kiss in his gnarly fist.

The kids beside me chuckled over that ”little turkey.”  I happened to be born on Thanksgiving, and Dad knew the phrase irked me.  He told that tale of Little Turkey’s miraculous holiday birth, along with a million other stories, over and over at family dinners and throughout our broom-pushing evenings together.

I’d long before notched the nuances of Willie Flannagan’s 20th Century epic onto a bronze timeline, beginning in Cincinnati with his parents’ deaths from the Great influenza.  He’d suffered his own bout with the illness, which rendered him comatose until he woke, at seven, parentless, with most of his hearing gone.  After that, he was shipped off to a Catholic orphanage, where he struggled in school because he couldn’t hear the nuns.  They finally kicked him out when he was sixteen, grown too big for the eighth grade class he’d flunked three years straight.  He went looking for work the very week the Stock Market crashed.  But Dad’s hard luck transformed into triumph when he wound up on the North Coast of California and married its most prized native daughter.

Dad had tracked me through much more than every hour of every day at the high school.  He’d already stalked me all through my schooling.  After failed businesses, he found a happy niche in the Redwood Coast Unified Schools, starting as assistant janitor at the primary school.  He gained promotions at exactly the same pace as I proceeded through the schools, so that when I finished third grade, he got a job at the upper primary, then followed me to junior high.  At my junior high graduation he congratulated me for having “already surpassed” him in education, then announced how he’d been promoted to head custodian of the high school.  “You and me, Frankie, we’ll go through all your years together!”

It hadn’t been so bad when I was a little kid.  I even remember working on my penmanship in my third-grade class and looking out the windows to see my dad pushing a handcart down the breezeway, whistling and waving to me.  I practically exploded out of my desk to wave back.  I gloried in his important missions at school and figured the other kids were just as impressed.

But now I was a big kid, cramped in a too-small desk in an empty high school hallway, disgraced,kicked out of Geometry for an entire week.  I tried to ignore the mud tracked into the foyer, just ten yards down the hall, and the inevitability of Custodian Flannagan showing up any minute to  scrub the linoleum.

Still blushing as I served the first minutes of my punishment, I cringed at the thought of anyone seeing me like this, let alone my father.  I’d never felt so idiotic.  I couldn’t even fault my geometry teacher, though he was my mortal enemy. With his fascist tendencies, Mr. Gottschalk could’ve killed me for what I’d just done.

I stared at our ugly yellow text of geometric theorems.  Gottschalk had marked my assigned chapters with a paper clip, the caught pages a bit thick for a single week of
class progress.  All we ever did, it seemed to me, was trudge through one theorem every period, without preface, without follow-up, without a glance at their meaning for the great boundless world. We were like recruits on a forced march in some chalky wilderness, knowing only that we’d slog for yet another forty-seven minutes.  We’d end up no further, no wiser, no closer to victory, never learning the point of the battle nor the cause of the war.

Gottschalk even had the manner of a demoted German officer assigned to hard duty in the
boondocks.  He snarled orders and demanded unstinting obedience.  Despite the rumors that his German-American roots had led him to spy for the Nazis, that he’d lost his left eye as punishment for helping the enemy in the War, I had to admire Gottschalk’s dedication.  He soldiered on every day at the blackboard when I was sure he didn’t know the purpose of our combat with this yellow book any more than we did.

I opened the text to the first theorem under Gottschalk’s clip and began to scribble my progress toward a proof.  The hall remained abandoned until Loreen Lucchesi, bearing a bathroom pass, popped out of Trigonometry.

Spotting me, she smirked.  I just stared dumbly ahead, too embarrassed to recover what little wit I had, and listened to the horrible music of girls and bathrooms; the swing of the metal door, the muffled flush, the too-long silence as Loreen washed her hands and diddled with her sticky hair and practiced her smirking smile just for her return trip back to my disgrace.

“Have you been a bad boy, Frankie?” she asked, a sweet lilt in her hushed tone.  She even dipped a bit, teacherish, to address me in passing.  “Or is even Geometry too much for you?”

“I’m doing advanced work, Loreen,” I announced, amazed I could invent the lie without a second’s hesitation.  “Gottschalk wants to me to fly ahead on my own.”

“Really?  Well, some of us are worried that you might fall to earth, sweetie.”  She stopped, nearer her classroom door.  “You were so smart in tenth grade.  Honors track.  We miss you, Frankie. Imagine, a junior taking a sophomore course.”

“I’m only off-track for math, Loreen, and you know it.  I’m still in Honors in every other class.”

“Oh really?  Since you never speak up in History or English–not on the subject, anyway–I guess we forgot you were still there.”  Her forehead knotted with fake concern, she slipped into class.

I noted her royal “we,” the affectation of her smug Honors clique.  Okay, I’d fallen behind in math since I’d struggled to earn the first C of my life in Algebra.   That’s actually what got me into this fix with Gottschalk, that I was the only junior, and almost the only male, in this particular Geometry section, dominated by brilliant and beautiful sophomore girls.

Even now I see those girl theorem-warriors as a flesh-and-blood tribute to humanity at its best, their powerful cerebral cortexes hidden under silken hair.  With perfect olive or peach complexions, most were the Portuguese- and Italian- and Finnish- American daughters of immigrant families I’d known my whole life.   A few of these sophomores formed the vanguard of the North Coast’s future, daughters of wealthy folks who built seafoam-dashed retreats on the headlands, daughters of artists and gallery owners, daughters of poor but hip Bay Area bohemians who’d followed Thoreauvian dreams to the redwoods–striking, slightly off-center girls named for lakes in the Cascades and Trinity Alps.  Sky would become an exchange student in Uruguay; Chelan gave forthright talks on birth control techniques in speech class;  Crystal represented Afghanistan at the World Affairs conference in Berkeley.   Shimmering among them was Gottschalk’s own demure daughter, Angelique.

At some point that fall these sophomore women had decided to adopt me.  Sent down from the heights of Junior Honors to fight the yellow book alongside them, I might be the janitor’s son, but I also became an object of tender pity, a project, and an older man–a kind of exchange student from the upperclassmen’s nation.

In the town where I’d been schooled in lockstep with most of my fellow students for eleven years, as a junior I felt strangely like a new arrival to myself.  I’d been one of those boys whose development goes backward all through junior high, who grows rounder and softer when the other boys are shooting up and gaining wide shoulders; instead of getting hairy at twelve or thirteen, instead of going from freckles to whiskers, my skin had become soft and downy.  Then, over the previous summer, I’d emerged from that extended, pudgy puberty and soared past six feet, losing all my baby fat.

As if a genetic switch got flipped, one day I was still glancing up to my catch my dad’s eyes, the next I was glancing down at the top his curly head.  Suddenly my older brothers’ hand-me-downs actually fit me, not their kid stuff, but the cool patched jeans and bled-out Madras shirts they’d been wearing to college classes the previous year.  I still couldn’t get used to my face, now thin and long, with a chin that jutted out instead of folding into my neck in triplicate.

The world’s impression of my new face, wonder of wonders, got signaled at a Finnish Hall summer dance when this beauty visiting from Marysville flirted with me all evening.  She’d forced me to clutch her close for the slow dances, then seduced me into walking her to her aunt’s after midnight.  She still sent me perfumed letters in pink envelopes, coaxing me over the Coast Range to visit her in Marysville.

All fall I’d dreamed of driving the whole distance by myself to seek the source of that Sacramento Valley perfume.  I’d sweet-talk my mom to let me take her Chevy Impala when I turned sixteen the day after Thanksgiving.

But by early November Angelique Gottschalk had been distracting my attention from distant Marysville to the desk just inches ahead of mine.  No, I didn’t dip Angelique’s imaginary pigtails into any imaginary inkwell.  I had other, more vivid diversions.

It started simple, back in October.  Shy, she’d smile when she passed back a quiz or worksheet. Angelique was as prim as any teacher’s daughter, but could make a knee-length navy blue skirt seem provocative.  She almost always wore white blouses, her bra straps clearly visible below her shoulder seams.  When she wore short sleeves, all I could do was stare at her smooth, tanned forearms; when she wore her hair up in a French twist, all I could do was stare at the back of her long, creamy neck, with the little birthmark just under her right ear.  While she worked obediently on a problem, she’d wiggle her ankles, and slip her feet in and out of her slip-on sneakers.  I knew this because I’d schlepped my desk a little rightward, out of the row line, to better appreciate Angelique’s
ear and study what her feet were up to.

“Mr. Flannagan?”  Mr. Gottschalk had cocked his good eye in my direction, while his glass one fixed straight on, toward the pencil sharper.  “I trust you’re keeping your eyes on your own paper?”

Even though I blushed hot while Gottschalk’s entire sophomore harem giggled at my reprimand, I’d actually been relieved.  I knew Gottschalk hated me and certainly didn’t think I had any integrity, but at least he hadn’t noticed that I’d been ogling his daughter’s neck, not her schoolwork.  I’d simply nod and slide my desk back into line.

Now, a month later, exiled in the hallway, I tried to make sense of what Gottschalk had assigned.  I stared at my scribbles so far, realizing I didn’t comprehend what I’d just copied from the text.  The single sentence that introduced the problem might as well have been in Old High Church Slavonic.  I flipped back to skim the boldfaced words that always marked new concepts or terms.   None of it rang the faintest chime in my brain.

Panicked, flipping further back, I heard no more chimes in earlier chapters, only muted thuds.  How had I missed so much?  When was the last time, really, that I’d actually worked on Geometry at home?  Was Loreen Lucchesi right, that I’d fallen from Honors-track grace into some dumbbell Purgatory?  Had that sudden growth spurt sucked the vital fluids out of my brain cells?

Suddenly there was more in the span of my gaze than defunct Geometry terms.   At desk’s edge, a glimpse of khaki.  Monkey Ward work pants.  In them–if I dared direct my gaze slightly upward– stood my father.   Unusually still, he even moderated his breath, which, because of his deafness, was usually louder than it needed to be.

I dared to face him, feeling my face redden, and waited for my father’s Irish temper to ignite. Awaiting his scorn, I prepared a strategy.  I would sweat-out the angry barrage, survive some torture like being grounded, then sit in the hallway for the rest of the week in peace.  The worst, I imagined, had already happened.  I had survived shame, degradation, and punishment many times before and bounced back as good as new; after all, I was raised Catholic.

But Dad remained impassive.  He placed his hands on his hips and stared directly into my eyes but said nothing.  From where I sat, squeezed into that little desk, he seemed a giant–a modern Goliath who required a hearing aid, its coil running from his ear to the battery in his front pocket, a Leviathan whose clutch of keys clanged from his belt rung.  I had never known him to be at a loss for words.  For that matter, I’d never known myself to be, either.  But we stared for what seemed like long minutes, wordless, tentative, as if afraid to discuss what was so obvious.

“So, Frankie,” he finally began, stepping back, a little more relaxed, even scratching his bare forearm, “what do you think you’re getting in Geometry?”

I breathed easier.  “I dunno.  Maybe a C, C-?  I can bring it up by the end of the semester.”

“You might be surprised.”

“Yeah?”  I was hopeful.  Maybe Dad believed I’d pull a B.

“Yeah.  I think you’re sitting on a D.  If you’re lucky.  It might have sunk to an F by now.  I talked to Fritz this morning in the staff room.  He’s pretty fed up with you.”

Dad always referred to teachers intimately, with first names or nicknames, as if I were pals with “Fritz,” too, or just genetically understood that “Gertie” meant our withered, kindly Senora Johannsen.

I didn’t know how to talk myself out of this fix.  I had just encountered the depths of my dangerous retardation in Geometry and had no argument against a D.  Or, bless me, Immaculate Mother of God, even an F.  But while I kept waiting for Dad to ask why I was sitting in the hall, he kept avoiding the issue, as if it were a long-established fact that I’d always belonged in solitary confinement.

My jailkeep appeared in at the doorway.  I could feel Gottschalk’s skewed gaze on me as he cracked the door.  I sensed the whole sophomore harem’s suppressed curiosity before Gottschalk slipped out and snapped shut the door behind him.  “Willie,” he said, “I hope everything’s as it should be out here.”

“It’s fine, Fritz.  But look.”  I followed Dad’s gesture to the muddy foyer.  “Helluva mess down there.”

“Kids sure track mud during the rainy season,”  Gottschalk said, severe yet chatty.  “A terrible design flaw, Willie.  They need to pave over all the paths from the playing fields.  Waste of your time.”

“Yeah.  Guess I better get the mop.”

“And I better get back to my students.”  Gottschalk deigned to glance down to me. “Any questions so far, Mr. Flannagan?”

I shook my head.  People who lack any comprehension rarely possess anything so honorable as a question.

Dad disappeared, off to his supply room.  Gottschalk returned to the girlish buzzing audible between the moments he wedged open the door and before he let it slam.

But I was glad that Dad’s unprecedented cool-calm strategy prevented him from interrogating me about the real trouble in Gottschalk’s class that morning.   At the period’s start, Gottschalk had us work in study groups, so Angelique had turned her desk around.  We were face-to-face as Sky, Crystal and Chelan pushed in to join us, so that without initiating any ruckus, I happened to be dead center among four brainy girls.  They’d all aced the homework; they’d confirmed the proof in about five minutes while I listened politely, nodding sagely at their elegant Old High Church Slavonic terminology.

While the other groups finished up, we discussed palm readings, which Chelan had just learned about from a Mendocino psychic.  It turned out that I had an unusually long life line, which curved under my thumb and  continued toward my wrist.  Chelan scratched her head, marveling that I might live “practically forever.“  The girls held my palm and passed it around as if it were a confounding rock sample.   But when Angelique’s turn came, last, she cradled my palm snugly and gently traced my long line with her forefinger.  An electric charge seemed to crackle under her gentle traces.

“Let me see yours,” I said, anxious now to enfold her small, smooth palm in mine.

The other girls exploded in giggles, a giddy blast that seemed too intense for the moment until I realized Gottschalk had quietly appeared beside us, poised above Angelique and me.

“Daddy,” Angelique said, her voice quavering despite her attempt at casual deflection, “you won’t believe how long Frankie’s lifeline is.”  She held up my hand, a specimen again.

“Look.”

“Yet if I trust more rational signs, Miss Gottschalk, I must predict that Mr. Flannagan’s life will be rather brutish and short.”  With a military about-face, Gottschalk took to the front of the room and commanded our attention by drawing a huge circle–or a zero?–on the board.  “As is our rule, one randomly selected person from each group will perform the solution and earn all the points.  Or, alas, receive a zero for his or her entire group.  Since your group finished first, Mr. Flannagan, would you please come forward and begin the proof for us?”

He scooped a piece of chalk from the tray and fired it to me as I shuffled to the board, clutching my yellow text.  The class buzzed with its normal, merry productivity, a mild curiosity arising as the sophomores prepared to compare their steps in the proof with mine.  I could read no inkling, no suspicion in anyone except Gottschalk of the bloody disgrace about to be smeared across that blackboard.

The first part was easy.  I simply copied the text’s introductory sentence, the conceptual statement, on the board, though I comprehended only its prepositions, articles, and the predicate, “given that…”  (It was a given that, other than a few tips on palm readings, I hadn’t absorbed a single fact from our study group’s discussion.)  After a long, lip-biting pause, as the class grew ever more silent behind me, I copied the text’s first diagram by intersecting a triangle through Gottschalk’s existing circle.  The class sunk into an even deeper hush.  I turned to see Gottschalk back himself against the far wall and hunker there, twirling a pencil between his fingers.

I raised the chalk to the circle, improvising.  I drew a little dotted arc between the topmost corner of the triangle, then, encouraged by this design, did the same for the other corners.  Where the circle’s diameter met the angle, I added a straight dotted line which sliced the circle in a pleasing third, like a peach slice.  Behind me, the hush broke into shuffling, whispers, and tapping pens–the unmistakable sound track of mass embarrassment.

“Well,” Mr. Gottschalk finally broke through, “Mr. Flannagan, please be aware we all understand the basic concept and diagram.  Although your artistry in dotted arcs is a
mystery, please proceed with the first stage of the proof, would you?  We await.”  He coughed. “Show us, as they say, yours.”

The rest went swiftly.  I sliced a corresponding peach across the other side of the circle, then stepped back to regard my imbecility.  I had nothing.  I surrendered and passed the chalk to another group designee.  Returning to my seat unable to make eye contact with Sky, Crystal, Chelan, and Angelique, I sat dumbstruck.

After the first student erased my dotted lines, to begin properly, and a relay of sophomore girls flawlessly executed the entire proof, I knew I had robbed my groupmates of all their homework points.  Angelique must have been casting me into the lowest pit of Hell to join Judas and Hitler.

When Gottschalk got class started on the homework, he quietly ordered me from my seat and into the hall.  He explained that I had demonstrated a sucking whirlpool of ignorance of all that he’d taught since the new quarter began.  I had needlessly injured my entire group; I seemed unable to concentrate on either lessons or group study without chatting or “pseudo-scientific distractions.”
The only solution was to separate me from my younger betters and see if I recovered in a week’s work of “independent study.”

I was asked for no justifications and offered no appeals.  Gottschalk left me in the hall after his sotto voce condemnations and returned to class to stage the grand gesture, hoisting my desk out of class, then setting it gently down beside the door.

While I ‘fessed up to my crime internally–even before I fully understood how far behind I was–I knew there was more going on than Gottschalk’s frustration with my math failures.  I could see how tribal, how primal his jealousy was.  He resented how the girls’ attention had shifted from him to me, that his manhood was sinking while I, fresh and strong, had been sent from the heights of Junior Honors.  Taller than Gottschalk now, I was literally rising to challenge his status.  If Freud and Jung had been there to plumb Gottschalk’s psychology, it couldn’t have been more clear.  Gottschalk’s decline, plus the fact that he’d caught me hand in hand with his precious daughter, formed the real motives for my exile.

I squinted at my meaningless jottings, hoping all I needed was to focus my fresh, strong powers. My dad appeared in the foyer with an enormous wheeled bucket and a mop, elaborately ignoring me. In no time, he’d restored the linoleum to its sparkling former glory.

*    *    *    *

The next week, Gottschalk allowed me back into class, but my relief got sabotaged when I realized he    was in deep cahoots with my father.  Instead of singling me out for more  public humiliation, Gottschalk adopted my dad’s silent treatment.  He handed back my latest “F” quiz to Angelique “by mistake,” so that she had to pass it back, her brow raised in wonder, her eyes crinkled in compassion.

At home, when progress reports came out later that week, brows were raised, too, but without compassion.  My parents’ eyes narrowed into simmering rage.

Dad had confiscated my down slips from the principal’s secretary and carried them home at lunchtime.  When I got in after school, each little square pink duplicate dangled from the kitchen ceiling in long tranparent-tape slithers.  Gottschalk had scrawled a “D-” on my the pink slip and, under Comments, added a cute “NO COMMENT.”  I wandered through the sticky, crude display–my own internal system failure–as if I’d been forced to examine unviable intestines in a field hospital.  I got “D” warnings in Chemistry, History, and English, and due to my anti-smoking ad’s lateness, even a “C” in Commercial Art.

One evening after that, I knew my parents–beyond being fed up with my sudden, spectacular decline–had other troubles they wouldn’t discuss with me.  At dinnertime, I went to answer little Jimmy Cortini’s knock as he made his usual neighborhood rounds, snacking at our table before he ate dinner with his own actual family.  But my mom abruptly stage whispered, “don’t answer!” and blocked my way.  She shrank back to the stove to stir the mush she prepared as that night’s dinner, while we waited, pathetic, until Jimmy stopped knocking and went away.

Ah, mush.  It was the middle of the month, and school district paychecks didn’t come out until the 20th, just before Thanksgiving.  When I was younger and the mid-month budget was especially tight, my mom would announce “breakfast for dinner!” and my brothers and I would all cheer, because we loved mush with margarine, warm milk and sugar, especially if the alternative was slimy casserole leftovers Mom brought home from school in big aluminum cans.  But Mom hadn’t resorted to mush or school leftovers for years, and I figured this relapse had to do with some sudden expense at my older brothers’ junior college in Santa Rosa.  Jimmyless, we ate the mush in silence. In hopes of cheering her up, or maybe just to be acknowledged, I told my mom it “hit the spot”, but she didn’t respond.

Later Dad prepared to take off for his moonlighting shift at the county courthouse, so I ran upstairs to get into my scruffy cleaning clothes.  But I practically had to sprint to catch up to him before he aimed his pickup into the street.  It was like he meant to take off without me.

We cleaned different floors, Dad in the courtroom, I in the upstairs offices, without a word between us the whole evening.

The next day, after school, carrying home my anti-smoking ad, I found a full pack of Marlboros by the side of the street, matches tucked into the cellophane.  I ducked into the adjacent patch of redwood forest, found a burnt stump with a comfortable top to perch on, and sampled a few.  Instead of the stereotypical coughing and nausea, I found the heavy, smoldering flavors compelling.

Friday, for the first time, I joined the smokers after lunch in their semi-outlaw spot behind the Continuation School’s trailers.  Some stoner senior girls invited me to a Saturday night party where older guys had set up a teepee on a backcountry lane.  The senior women even picked me up in a rusty Beetle.  I told my parents they were taking me to a school-sponsored dance, a World Affairs fundraiser for Cambodian orphans.

The next Monday, I met Angelique for lunch, who had requested a word with me via note in Gottschalk’s class:  “Meet me in the courtyard on the library steps, okay?  P.S.  Why weren’t you at the Honor Society meeting Friday or the dance on Saturday?”  After staying up late on Saturday drinking beer with two exciting wild-haired seniors in matching buckskin miniskirts, I felt a little embarrassed by Angelique’s white blouse and plaid skirt.  Why’d she dress like a Catholic schoolgirl when she didn’t have to?  She sipped milk with a straw, like a third-grader.  Under the breezeway roof, we sat with our trays on our laps, watching the cold drizzle on the concrete, inches from our feet.  “Your mom’s mac and cheese is so yummy,” she told me.  “This is my favorite lunch.”

“So, did I miss anything at Honor Society?”

“Frankie…would you like for me to help you with Geometry?”

“Angelique!  Wait a minute.  Is the Society kicking me out?”

“I don’t think they can, until semester grades come out.  But why don’t you let me help you?”

I excused myself, telling Angelique I had a headache, which I did, but lied that I was going off to bum some aspirin off my mom.  I carried our trays back to the cafeteria, then slipped through the woods to the Continuation School to find out if nicotine would stanch the pain.  I smoked with a lone stoner guy under the narrow eaves of the Continuation trailer, blowing smoke into the rain.

In History, Loreen Lucchesi led our small group.  Oral history topics were due that day, and Mr. Short wanted us to “test them out” on our peers.  I’d completely forgotten the assignment and strained to dream up a subject while Loreen duly noted our ideas.  When the circle was down to Loreen and me, I ignored her smirk and deferred to her, my mind still racing.

“Don’t think this is too weird, you guys, but I’m actually going to interview Mr. Gottschalk,” Loreen said.  “He’s our neighbor, and I’ve known him since I was little.  He’s seen a lot of history, and I’m good at coaxing him into conversation!”

Everybody chuckled but me.  Loreen went on, about how we all probably knew that Gottschalk had lost one eye in the War, but did anybody really know how?  At eighteen, serving as a medical assistant, he had been helping to evacuate Belgian civilians from a school they’d used as a field hospital.  Gottschalk’s unit had heard reports that the school might be booby trapped, then ambushed by a German battalion, so they were hustling like crazy to get everybody out.  But Gottschalk realized that in their panic, they’d left behind a village kid who was under anesthesia in the basement.

“That’s where Mr. Gottschalk was when the bomb went off,” Loreen said, “and, get this.  Even though a shard of blasted glass took out his eye, he still carried that kid up the stairs and into the school yard.  The boy was thirteen or so, not that much smaller than Mr. Gottschalk was, but he managed to get him out of the collapsing building.  Later–it’s so sad, you guys–he realized the boy had already been killed.  He’d been dead the whole time Mr. Gottschalk was risking his life to save him.  Isn’t that amazing?  He’s this incredible war hero with a million medals and citations and I think, a Purple Heart.  And here he is, teaching his heart out at our little school.

“And none of us know because Mr. Gottschalk will never, ever bring it up on his own.  Angelique says he keeps the medals in his tool drawer in the garage, just tossed there, next to the screwdrivers.  She’s never heard him tell the story to anyone outside the family.  But I’m going to try to get it out of him.”

Chrimony, what was left to tell?  While the group buzzed, awestruck, about Gottschalk’s valor, it shocked the hell out of me that I’d always imagined the wartime Gottschalk as he was now, a rigid, one-eyed, middle-aged scold.  I tried to imagine a teenaged version of my math teacher with two good eyes, only a couple years older than me.  I wondered if his wound had changed his life for good, if he’d always wanted to be a teacher, or if he’d had to settle for putting up with D students because his original dream was as dead as that Belgian kid.

When I heard Loreen calling my name, I felt like I’d sunk underwater for a dangerous, airless interval.  Everyone in the circle was staring at me like concerned spectators on the rim of a pool.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, glancing at Loreen’s paperback, Grapes of Wrath.  “My…mom’s family had a tough time in the Thirties.  They were, you know, immigrants.  So I’ve been thinking of  interviewing my mom about the Depression.”

~

At dinner the Monday before Thanksgiving, scarfing down spaghetti with a side of boiled potatoes, Dad suddenly turned to me.  Out of the blue, maybe because it was payday at last, I was suddenly worthy of his interest.

“So why’d Fritz throw you out, anyhow?”

He didn’t sound mad, which scared the hell out of me.  This was just the tone he used to dig for school trivia (”So where’d Gertie end up hanging that Mexican flag I saved for her?”) punctuated with an elaborate fork-mashing of yet another boiled potato.

“I was just talking, I guess…” I muttered, not even convincing myself.  But he wasn’t being straight, either.  In conspiracy with his buddy Fritz, I was sure he already knew the whole story.

“Talking, eh?”  He fiddled with a toothpick.  He adjusted the big hearing aid battery in his pocket.  “Just talking, huh?  I guess Fritz was having one of his bad days.”

“He seems to have bad days on a regular basis.  Like every day.”

This feeble sarcasm actually produced a giggle from Jimmy Cortini, welcome again at our payday table.  Maria Crnjac, an old Croatian widow who lived in the cottage behind the corner bar, had also joined us that evening.  (My mom was so used to cooking for five hundred that she thought nothing of it when half the neighborhood smelled her spaghetti sauce and wheedled their way to our table with feeble offerings like raw snap peas or a quart of Safeway jug wine in a Ball canning jar.)  Maria leaned toward my mother, mumbling something in Croatian.  My mom mumbled something back, pointing at me.

Maria just nodded, then stared at me with the open sympathy people feel for the mentally impaired.  There was no privacy in my life.  I felt just as exposed and ridiculous at our dinner table as in the hallway next to Gottschalk’s door.

“A whole week in the hall,” my dad said, “that’s a hell of a  punishment for just talking.  Well, I better get going.  Gotta do the county courthouse tonight.”

I rose, too, happy to escape being the evening’s clown act for Jimmy and Maria.  “Wait a sec, Dad.  Let me change into my scruffies.”

“You planning on coming?  You sure, Frankie?  Don’t you have homework tonight?”

“But don’t you need me?”

“I can get it done by myself.  I’d do the courtroom first to make sure it’s ready for tomorrow’s docket.  Meanwhile, don’t you have a project in History?”

I stared at him.  Since when did he take such a close interest in my History homework?  And what project was he talking about?  I didn’t dare admit that I didn’t remember.  “Yeah.  I guess.  You know Short.  He’s always got a project for us.”

“Yeah, well Sheldon told me about it this afternoon.  Sounds kinda interesting.  Oral history.  You told him you were going to interview your mom.”

“You are?” my mom piped up.  “About what, for Pete’s sake?”  Oh, yeah.  And sweet blessed Virgin, our reports were due tomorrow.  “About the Depression, Mom.”

Luckily Maria was already tugging at Mom’s sleeve for a translation of the goings-on, so I turned to Dad:  “How about if I stop by to help you after I finish interviewing Mom?”

“Thanks, Frankie.”  He cocked his head, tinkering with his ear-piece.  “But you’ll probably want to be catching up on your Geometry, too, won’t ya?”  With that, kissed my mom, praised her pasta, and waved goodbye.

Damn him, I thought, now he’s got me begging to help him clean the toilets in the county building.  I
had half a notion that he and Gottschalk, with their pensiveness and long silences, were deep into
some reverse-psychology scheme they thought I was naive enough to fall for.  Maybe they believed they might re-enact Gottschalk’s war heroism, only mine was the body they were hauling up from that basement.  Well, the hell with them!  I still had a brain, and I’d prove I wasn’t any damn Belgian cadaver.

“That was weird,” I told my mother after the prospect of helping with the dishes had chased Maria and Jimmy home.  She washed, I dried while I wondered, “Dad’s been acting so quiet.  And since when doesn’t he want me to help him with the county building?”

“Frankie, you’re supposed to be so smart.  Think about it.”

She gave me the chance as she hummed along with the oldie station’s Frank Sinatra hit, “I Did It My Way.”  Then, fighting with a sauce pot, she said,  “He’s worried sick that it’s his fault, your bad grades.  That he made you work too many evenings.”

“He never ‘made’ me, though, Ma.  And even when I subbed for him while you guys were in Santa Rosa, I still kept my grades up.”

“So, what’s the story now?  How come?  All the sudden, like this?  You used to have the best penmanship–”

“I was in third grade!”

“Well, now it looks like chicken scratch.  That’s a sign, they say.”

“Of what?  Sudden retardation syndrome?”

Mom sighed.  “Drugs.”

“Oh God!  Where would I get drugs?”

“Who were those older girls in that little Beetle?  Why did you lie to us about the World Affairs dance?”

I considered another lie while I stacked dishes in the cupboard, rattled by all the noise I was making in my mother’s deepening silence.  I feared that my mother’s mood would transmute from its amiable American Sinatra-humming norm into its Croatian evil twin, that old-country crone who scowled and sputtered about ancient blood feuds and eternal curses.  I told her I was sorry.

She didn’t acknowledge my apology.  “So, what’s this interview with me?  Am I part of history now?”

“No…well, yeah, but you know, recent history.  I always wanted to know about that legend.  You know, that you went over to Hopland when you were thirteen to pick hops and make your fortune.”

“Yeah, and when I came home, my poor father had to buy me shoes.  What’s so historic about that?”

“Well, it was the Great Depression, Mom.  And you were a migrant worker, just like the Grapes of Wrath.”

“I wasn’t a migrant worker!  It was an adventure with my big sister.”

“You were in a tent, picking hops for slave wages.  Isn’t that migrant labor?”

“Frankie, it wasn’t the Grapes of Wrath, for Pete’s sake.  I told you, I was a silly kid.  I was earning my fortune!”

“If it was that simple, why didn’t you ever return to school?  Why were you an eighth-grade dropout?

“Oh, first I’m an Okie, now I’m a dropout?”

“Well, what would you call it?”

“I just never started high school. When I got home, it was already the middle of September.  I was too embarrassed to enroll. I knew I’d be behind in all my subjects.”

“And that’s not dropping-out?”

“No, no, no!  It was different then, Frankie.  I had to help out at home.  Then, you know, in a few years, I met your father.”

“Yeah.  Then you became a teenage bride.”

“I beg your pardon!  I was almost eighteen.”

“And that’s not being a teenage bride?”

“You got enough for your report now?”  She dumped the soapy dishpan into the sink.  “Are we done?”

“You’re not an easy interview, Mom.”  I wiped down the dish drain.  “I don’t have a lot of material, here.”

“I’m sorry that my life is so boring, Frankie.”

“It’s not boring, Mom!  For God’s sake, your parents were immigrants, you lived through all these hard times, your brothers fought in the biggest battles in the Pacific during the War, half your family died from TB. You survived TB after years of treatments. You’re like a walking history of the twentieth century so far.  But you won’t tell me anything!”

“Well, you ask me silly questions, then call me names.  Dropout.  Teen bride.”

“Okay, okay.  It’s my fault.  But wouldn’t you be interested in asking me a few questions if I decided to quit school?  I’ll be sixteen in a few days. What if I do quit, then get married?  What would you ask me?”

“This isn’t funny, Frankie.”  She wiped her hands and headed into the den, where she picked dead needles off her prize Norfolk pine.  “It’s cruel even to joke about that,” she called.  “Does this have anything to do with that Marysville girl who sends you those stinky pink letters?”

“No, Ma, no.”  I followed her into the den.  “Look, I’m not gonna drop out.  I’m sorry.”

“If you want to prove you’re so sorry, you better get started on your schoolwork.”

That was that.  Upstairs, I had to pass through the little shrine my mother kept in the hallway that angled into my room.  The third-grade penmanship award.  Gold ribbons from my sixth grade “College Bowl” championship season.

I had once absorbed facts and trivia like a human knowledge filter, the weird kind of kid who knew the chief products of Ceylon and Willie Mays’ career batting average, the importance of Dred Scott, the 1965 estimated population of greater Atlanta.  On that wall, Mom had arrayed four framed Honor Roll certificates, grades seven through ten.

In my tiny room, I sat at the huge fold-down desk my dad had made for me.  I dropped my forehead on the calendar pad and sunk into a funk.  Even my stupid oral history interview had been a complete waste of time, not only because of my mother’s stubbornness, but because I knew I had
been taunting and disrespectful.

I thought about the night my mom had come home from tenth-grade open house, one of those parent nights where she’d been given a copy of my schedule and walked through my class periods at ten minute intervals, from teacher to teacher.  Giddy afterwards, she’d sat down in the kitchen, sipping Safeway burgundy out of a jelly glass, still dressed to the nines like Jackie Onassis home from High Mass.  Fragrant, her dark hair swept up, in her best gold earrings, she told me how scared she’d been to “go back to school,” not as a staff member, but a mother of an Honors student.  “Maybe I know the kitchen, but I always get lost in all those hallways.”  But wandering from class to class, as each of my teachers praised me, she began to relax and soak it up.  She kept telling me how proud of me she was, but I’d been more proud of her.  I’d hoped that teachers and parents who only saw her in her white uniform and hair net now realized how self-possessed and beautiful she really was, how hard she’d had to work to help keep our cash-starved family fed and happy.

I pulled my head up, staring at my window reflection against the high-lit, churning lumber mill, and the dark blurry horizon of the ocean and sky beyond it.  I realized I could write my project from memory, out of the vast, one-sided oral history that had been underway for the past fifteen years–the one about my dad’s heroic past and the woman he loved.  It wouldn’t be as dramatic as Gottschalk’s rescue of the Belgian boy, but my deaf Dad wasn’t allowed to serve in the War.

So I started to write my father’s World War II homefront narrative, more than a decade before I was born, when my teenaged mom was confined in a TB sanatorium down in Santa Rosa and my out-of-county dad had to pay full price for her room and treatments.  Coastal blackouts were imposed to foil Japanese submarines from bombing our harbors at night, so, to see his wife, to encourage her, my dad drove hours on twisting coast roads with just flashlights or moonlight to guide him.  His first business, a service station, failed because of gas rationing as the War wore on, so he worked three or four jobs and lived with his in-laws to support my mom’s recovery.  “I’m going to turn every ounce of my energy,” he’d written in a letter I’d once retrieved from a shoebox of old receipts, “into money for your treatments, my darling.  I’ll prove how much I love you. Someday I’m going to buy you every little thing you might ever need.  Then we’re going to start a beautiful family and by God they’re all going to be college graduates.”

Her response, tucked into the same envelope, after “Dearest Willie, you don’t need to prove anything.  I already know,” was followed by two sides of notebook paper with neat “X’s” and “O’s” repeated and repeated in geometric precision until she ran out of space.

Finished with my first draft, I pulled out the yellow book and started skimming forward from Chapter 1.  Tomorrow in study hall, I decided I’d ask Angelique for help.  Other men might bring her roses, but I would offer an aluminum canful of my mom’s macaroni and cheese and throw myself at her mercy.

I glanced across the few downtown blocks toward the county courthouse and watched the lights go in upstairs offices.  I thought of my dad’s route there, how he’d already finished the courtroom and would start with the Selective Service office and continue all the way down to the Records Room, emptying ashtrays, emptying trash, mopping the checkered linoleum.  Without my help, he’d keep scrambling until eleven or midnight.

I’d still be fighting with the yellow text when he got home. He’d scold me like he always used to when I was up too late with my books, and remind me–like I didn’t know–that I had school in the morning. But just so I wouldn’t be a complete fool in the face of Angelique’s tutoring, I kept on, determined to learn and re-learn every unfamiliar term, every principle, every method of proof.

 

Lee Patton, a native of California’s Mendocino Coast, lives in Denver. He received the Borderlands Playwrights Prize in 1993 (THE HOUSE GUEST) and the 1996 Ashland New Playwrights (ORWELL IN ORLANDO); “Not Headhunters” was featured in the 2004 Last Frontier Theatre Conference.  His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Massachusetts Review, The California Quarterly, Hawaii-Pacific Review, The Neo-Victorian, and, most recently, VS.  This story was composed during a residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota.