Tuesday, March 30, 2010


This is a piece I had worked up and then later edited for a fiction writing class. I think it has a lot farther to go though.
Be mindful that it is rough... It's not a first draft but its definitely still a rough draft to me, so please be kind :-)

School in the summer is miserable. But don’t tell my mother I said that. She’d just say, “There was plenty of time for school during the school year. You chose to go to school in the summer.” Well, if you could choose between doing something you don’t want to do now and doing it later, you might choose to do it later too. You would probably also end up wishing you had just gotten it over with.
It’s not the part about my brother and sister going swimming while I’m doing math, or about hearing the ice cream man go by during a social studies lesson that makes summer school miserable. It’s the heat that’s good for swimming, but not much good for learning. My mouth stays wet, but my throat is so dry that it begins to ache and no matter how many times I swallow, it still hurts. It is an after-recess thirst that cannot be avoided. No one is allowed to sit out at recess. You can either choose to run around or be chased around, so I try to look like I’m hard at play by hanging upside-down on the monkey bars until my head feels heavy enough to fall off. When I put my feet back on the ground my legs wobble under the weight of my head and I see sparkles and spots in front of everything. By the time I recover, it is time for all of us hot, sweaty, miserable children to march back inside.
It’s cool inside and the change from the outside oven to the refrigerated school building makes me shiver. Back in the classroom though, I imagine that everyone has soaked up so much heat from recess that instead of the room cooling us off, we heat up the room. I am tired from hanging upside-down and watching the other kids run around on the grassy sky—tired, just from the heat. I am not ready to learn about the first capital city of Alabama. I’m ready to have a glass of sweet pink lemonade with big drippy ice cubes to suck on afterwards.
I try not to think about that tall, cool glass of pink lemonade. I scratch at my mosquito bites until they smart and some of them start to bleed. I count all of my bites three times. I have seventeen. My bottom is falling asleep under me. I pull my legs up to my chest so that I can rest my head on my knees.
“Isabella!” Mrs. Brooks does not look happy. I don’t know why, because I haven’t been paying attention, but I look up now. “Sit up and put your feet on the floor!” Mrs. Brooks has the best southern drawl you’ll ever hear. I think if Mrs. Brooks went somewhere like New York or California, they would ask her if she was a cowgirl. This thought makes me smile a little. Mrs. Brooks looks even more upset—I can tell because her face gets even redder and her lips press together into thin lines. I put my feet down so fast that I scrape my legs on the edge of the desk and some of my bites start bleeding again. I don’t pay any attention to my bites. I just scoot right up to the desk trying to look like a straight-A student: feet nailed to the floor, back straight, eyes forward, pencil poised, ready for anything. Some kids actually sit like this all the time. Like Cassie Smith, for example; she even dresses smart. At least Mrs. Brooks thinks so. Every morning, Cassie says good morning to Mrs. Brooks in a voice sweet as iced tea and wedding cake. Then, Mrs. Brooks says, “ Good morning Cassie. Don’t you look smart today in that pretty little outfit?” Cassie’s mother is a PTA mother. My mother works the night shift at the hospital and tends to be too tired to associate with parents and teachers. Cassie looks pretty every day (compliments of a PTA mother, I guess). I look pretty good on picture day. Cassie is probably at Disney World this summer. I am in summer school.

After school I take exactly 1,137 steps from school up the stairs to the door of apartment 11B. Inside I tip toe around the house like a ballerina without a tutu. My mother is still asleep. I sit right in front of the TV with a box of Cheerios and the volume turned down so everything sounds far away. The sound of a door jerking out of its frame makes me jump.
“I wish your daddy would fix this door,” my mother says behind me. I keep my head low hoping to blend into the carpet like a chameleon.
“How was school?” I turn around now and her hands are held out to me so I go over to her. My mother’s hair is messy and her hands are warm. She’s looking at the TV when she asks me, “Did you finish those books we got from the library?”
“Um, not all of them,” I say.
“Why don’t you go read and turn off the TV, or I can help you with your times tables?”
“Okay.” I take the Cheerios and leave without turning off the TV.
There is a stack of library books beside my bed. They have been sitting there since we brought them back from the library a week ago. I take the one on top, open to the first page and read the first line. I turn the pages, counting how many are in the first chapter—five. I flip to the end—88 pages. I turn back to the beginning and stare at the words until they start to shift and vibrate on the page. I put the book back on top of the stack of library books. Then I feed Mary Elizabeth and John Peter who swim up to catch the flakes drifting on the surface of the water. Mary Elizabeth doesn’t swim in circles. She swims up and down, watching John Peter all the time and breathing bubbles at him. I know that she is really whistling; that she is proud of her younger brother John Peter just for swimming in circles and eating all his food.
My sister is back from the pool and she climbs up to sit on the top bunk in her wet swimsuit. She is flipping her hair around the way she’s been doing since April when she and Phillip turned thirteen. She’s getting me wet so I tell her to quit it. She rolls her eyes and goes to lock herself in the bathroom. I hear Phillip in the hallway. He has to pee and Anna is taking her time. He comes to the doorway to dance around with his legs crossed.
“Did you feed Mary Liz and J.P.?” he asks.
I nod my head yes and ask, “Did you have fun at the pool?”
He yells over his shoulder for Anna to hurry up. “It was too hot,” he says.
“That’s why the pool is there, to cool you off,” I say.
“Yeah, but,” he looks down at his feet, “it was too crowded. Half the kids in Montgomery were there.”
“Wish I could have been there.”
He shrugs and says, “It wasn’t much fun at all.” I give him a look and he just shrugs again and smiles with one side of his mouth.

When I hear daddy coming in from work I run into him at the door knocking him back two steps. He hugs me back and when I look up he is smiling down at me but his eyes are tired.
“How’s my baby girl?” he asks.
“I did all my homework yesterday,” I say.
“Did you?” He is looking over my head now at the news on TV. Then my mother and the twins come to steal him away.
We have fried catfish, green beans, and field peas for supper. We have rolls too, but I can’t have any because I do not like field peas.
Daddy asks me, “How was school?” and I tell him, fine. He asks Phillip and Anna “How was the pool?” Anna starts to talk about practicing diving. She says that it is hard and something else that I don’t hear because Phillip starts to sing a song that makes me laugh too hard and our mother tells him to stop singing at the table. Anna’s mouth is full of field peas and braces. She explains that it is important to dive in without making a big splash. Her thin hair is flipping. My mother and daddy just nod and nod.
I reach for a roll, but daddy gives me a look and says, “No beans, no bread.”
My mother presses her hair down on one side. She is talking about multiplication now. She says that if I tell her four multiplication tables, I can have a roll. I look at my mother’s face. Her big hair is curling up on one side in a way that reminds me of looking at my face in the bathroom mirror. My mother’s eyebrows are raised. My daddy is picking at his fishbone. His head is tilted with one ear up. Phillip smiles at me halfway. Anna does not say anything anymore.
I push my chair back. “I have to pee.”

Sometimes I dream that Phillip, Anna and I are triplets. We are all tall and lacy-boned and have our mother’s dark eyes and our daddy’s pale thin hair. Tonight when I close my eyes, I have fins and gills. When I swim in circles my mother smiles and blows bubbles at me. When I eat all my flakey supper my daddy says, “That’s my girl.”
In the morning, I remember that Mrs. Brooks had given us a worksheet to do at home. I take it out and in the first blank for five times seven, I write 1,137. In the second blank for three times four, I write eight. On my birthday last year, I had a white cake with strawberry icing and eight pink candles. After finishing my homework, I fold the worksheet in half three times and put it away. When I look up, Phillip is in his blue-green swimming trunks feeding Mary Elizabeth and John Peter.
He asks me over his shoulder, “Did you do your homework?” I take out my worksheet and hold it up from across the room. When Phillip turns around, he looks at me past my worksheet. He lifts his hands to pile them on top of his head and he smiles daddy’s smile. “Good.” My lips don’t work right when I try to smile back so I crush my paper into me to press each fold flatter before I squat down to put it away again. Anna stands in the doorway now tapping her bare foot. Her toenails are the color of bright yard sale signs and I can’t tell if they are pink or orange. Phillip takes a step toward the door.
“Multiplication is too hard.” I stand up in front of Anna—in front of the door. Phillip stops in the middle of his step like he is playing freeze tag.
He opens his mouth, but Anna says, “You have to practice, Isabella,” she flips her hair twice, “just like I practice diving. The Olympic divers make it look so easy, but it’s not. Sometimes, when I do lots of really bad dives, I just want to quit, but I can’t because, then I won’t be good enough to make the diving team when I get to high school.” Phillip shakes his head, grinning like daddy again.
Somewhere after step 93, I lose count. I do not think diving is anything like multiplying. People do not go to the Olympics for being good at multiplication. Diving is good for the heat; multiplication is not. Even when I practice multiplication tables inside with my mother, I sweat. Somehow, Phillip and Anna make times tables look easier than swimming.
My worksheet is the only one folded three times. Mrs. Brooks stops to unfold my paper and she does not look pleased at all. She sighs and leans against the front of her desk. She asks the class where the first capital of Alabama was. There are no hands up because people like Cassie Smith do not go to summer school. Mrs. Brooks is glaring at all of us over the top of her glasses. I raise my hand one finger at a time, higher until my sweaty palm catches the cooler air above my head. When Mrs. Brooks sees my hand, she blinks twice before calling on me.
I say, “Montgomery?”
She says, “No. I asked where the first capital was.” She is looking at me. My throat is aching. I try to swallow but all my spit is gone. I look down to study the floor like the answer is written somewhere on the white tiles. When I squint up at Mrs. Brooks she’s still watching me waiting for me to answer, so I just shrug my shoulders and look out the window at nothing.
After three more hours of school everyone is getting ready to leave for home. That’s when Mrs. Brooks calls me up to her desk and the other kids start making ooohing sounds like I’m in trouble. Mrs. Brooks puts her hand up and starts to count to three until everyone hushes. She has my creased worksheet on the desk in front of her and the corners of her mouth are turned down. I look down at my shoes, which are tied in double knots so they won’t come out.

I take out the yellow slip Mrs. Brooks gave me in class today. The house is quiet and the hallway is dark except for the muffled noise and blue glow coming from the TV at the end of the hall. I keep my hand on the wall as I inch down the hallway to the living room where my daddy is slumped on the couch, his head drooping to his chest.
“Daddy?” I say. He snorts awake and shields his eyes from the TV. “Daddy, Mrs. Brooks said you’re supposed to sign this.” I hold it out to him and he squints at it in the dim light. He switches on a lamp so he can see what it says.
He turns to me and he asks me, “Did you do your homework?” He has already taken a pen from his pocket and is holding it over the yellow slip. I say yes, so he signs.
“Aren’t you going to check my answers?” I ask.
He sighs. “In the morning.”
In the morning daddy is running late for work. I know that six times six is probably not twenty-four and eight times eight isn’t forty-two, but Anna has locked herself in the bathroom, Phillip is still at a sleepover, and my mother is not home from work yet, so I am taking 1,137 steps to go fail a test on multiplication tables.

Mrs. Brooks is collecting the homework. She asks me for mine. She wants to know if I got the yellow sheet signed. I tell her that I forgot it at home. Mrs. Brooks just raises an eyebrow at me.
She is passing out the test now, telling us to be quiet and keep our eyes on our own papers. I write my name at the top of my paper. The first problem is five times two. A week ago, on the same day my mother took me to the library, she was saying that I should at least remember that I have five fingers times two. She’d said, “That’s just common sense.”
I write ten in the first blank. I look at the other problems and then out the window. I try to remember the silly rhymes in a song about times tables that Phillip tried to teach me once. I try to come up with good answers for each problem. I do not care if I cannot win a gold medal. I try until my head hurts and my palms are slick with sweat.
When I turn in my test, Mrs. Brooks glances down at my paper then up at me and, maybe it’s the heat, but it looks as if she is not frowning at me. It is possible that she is smiling at me. A little bit.

The day after summer school is out, Phillip and Anna take me to the pool with them. There are only seven other kids there. It is too hot and I can already feel fresh beads of sweat coming out on the surface of my skin. I jump in and let myself sink all the way to the bottom to touch the floor before I come up. Anna is diving. Phillip and I are playing Marco Polo. We play five games and I win every time. 

1 comment:

  1. love it--you pay such great attention to detail. it's amazing how much i've forgotten of my childhood, and yet how much you remember and are able to describe so accurately in these stories.

    keep 'em coming :)