Double Drowning

classroom

“I hate that teacher!”
Mrs. Polemane sighed. “Daniel, she says you’re late every single day and it’s getting worse.”
“Well, every time I come in, she stops everything and makes fun of me in front of all the other kids!”
“You’re telling me you’re late because she embarrasses you so much you put off going in.”
His black hair didn’t stir at his nod.
“Well, what can we do? She doesn’t like your being late, so she tries to make it so unpleasant for you that you’ll come on time. On the other hand, instead of taking the hint, you just come later because you know you’re going to have a bad experience.” Was he getting all this? She wondered how Miss Mays would have treated a blue-eyed boy who was late.
“I hate her! She hates me back!”
“Oh, Daniel, she doesn’t hate you. It’s just that she gets annoyed because she has to make a special effort for one student every morning, just when she’s gotten everybody else at work. You can understand that, can’t you?”
“Yeah, but she’s mean. She got no call to make fun of my clothes and tell everybody I take charity lunch!”
So it was that bad. Mrs. Polemane sighed again wondering if she could communicate to Miss Mays the feeling that it was a miracle Daniel came to school at all, considering the mess at home. If she’d ever had his older brother or sisters, she’d give a cheer whenever he showed up. “Daniel, I can see to it that your teacher doesn’t make fun of you any more, but you’ve got to get to school on time. I’ll have a talk with your mother about helping you.” Lies. She knew his mother wouldn’t be conscious enough to help him. She knew the persecution would just get more subtle. All she could do was suppress some of the symptoms. Nothing she could do would cure bone deep anger pitted against unconscious prejudice.

 

Ted and Me

Potted-Poinsettia-Plant-I’ve gotten to admire Ted a lot since I married his wife last year. Don’t get me wrong. She was a good wife to him and she’s a good wife to me. She’s made me feel almost young again.
But sometimes I wonder. See, she’s still married to Ted in a way. It was only a year after he died that we were married, and she’s had a hard time getting used to it. Things like writing her new married name—she still forgets. And she’ll call me Ted. After all, they were together for forty-three years.
We’ve both had a hard time. When I moved in, I couldn’t find a thing in any drawer or cupboard without asking her. So I fixed things up a little, and sure enough the other day, she told me she couldn’t find a thing without asking me where it is! Adjustments. But we’re making ’em.
The other day was her and Ted’s anniversary. They’d been married on December 19th, so she said she wanted to take a pot of poinsettias for his grave. We’d had fresh snow that morning, but did that stop her? No, we couldn’t put it off.
Trouble was, I wouldn’t let her ruin her health tramping about in a foot of snow in those little heeled boots she wears and I didn’t know exactly where the grave was. So there I was at the top of the rise trying to find Ted’s marker, one of those flat ones they can mow over. She was shouting directions to me from the road. I’d stomp in one direction and kick the snow away then plow through more snow, trying to find the right one. Finally, sneezing and afraid I’d catch my death, I left the flowers at the next wrong marker I uncovered, saying “Forgive me, Ted, but you’ve known her longer than I have. I know you’ll understand.”

GRIEF

It was the peaceful, painless death at home at age 87 we’d all like to have, but she wept large, noisy sobs at the closing of the casket.  Crying like that over the death of an old man, especially in a room near the chapel where everyone could hear, is just not done.  We may shed tears, but generally we conduct ourselves as if at a reception: quiet conversa­tion, pleasant faces, and an absence of black clothing except among the funeral staff.  Even the widow generally uses her handkerchief little, smiling and comforting others.  To wail and display so much grief was a breach of etiquette, an embarrassment to the family.

“Hush!  Be good, now!” the widow vainly whispered to her erring granddaugh­ter whose mother was blushing and hovering, offering pink tissues from her purse packet.

The eldest son waited at the just‑closed casket to lead the family prayer.  Receiving the line of viewers had taken them past the eleven o’clock starting time.  Her noise was too loud to pray over.

“Must be having PMS” muttered another son to his wife who passed over a purse packet of yellow tissue when the pink was used up.

The funeral director cleared his throat, clearly hinting that people were waiting.  Probably the organist was running out of prelude music.  Still the wails continued.

The eldest son spoke to the mother of the girl, suggesting that she lead her out so they could go on.  Then the unthinkable happened and the girl screamed, “No!  No!  You can’t have him! No!  I want to die too!” and threw herself over the casket, crushing a very expensive floral display of red roses, white carnations, and palm fronds.

Now the mother, herself weeping, was pulling at the daughter’s shoulders.  Someone muttered, “That girl must be on drugs,” foot tapping.

Now an aunt was on the other side of the granddaughter, the two women virtually carrying her out while she sobbed and sobbed.  Then it was silent and the family prayer and funeral went on decorously and predictably.

All he had done was lead an honest, hardworking life in which he was instrumental in rearing two daughters and two sons.  His life history contained no unexpected events or outstanding achievements except, perhaps, that bootlegged tribute sobbed out as the granddaughter was hustled to the door, “He’s my best friend!”

 

 

 

 

 

TREE TALK

 

                       

 

Manuel was listening to his tree so hard that he didn’t hear his teacher call.  He was looking so intently at the terrain of its trunk that he didn’t see the other children go.  His tree’s leaves backlighted against the morning glowed so green, he didn’t leave.

Mr. Larsen, the balding, red‑faced, reading program volunteer sent to find him, walked heavily into the thicket where the tree lived.  His calling voice was obscured by the trees’ voices, drawn out by a brisk and billowing wind.  He half resented being sent on the errand, ready to chew the kid out. Then he saw Manuel, listening now to a scrub jay noisily protesting the invasion of its territory.

Mr. Larson had attended this school.  He had often played in this thicket with other boys and girls.  The trees were still familiar to him.  Now he too listened.  From the school border came the low, surflike roar of huge blue spruce.  The sycamores shading the play area cheered to the clanging of metal swivel hooks on the tetherball poles.

A lull.  Bells clanged for grades 3 to 6 recess.

Manuel startled, turned to run, and bumped into a large knee. He looked up and   smiled when he recognized the man. He patted the trunk nearest him.  “This is my tree.  His name is Woody.”

Mr. Larsen knew about the second‑grade program.  “I’m pleased to meet him. Manuel, why did you adopt Woody out of all the other trees?”

The boy looked at the diagonally growing trunk, all inner branches broken off with the passage of many years and children, and he patted it affectionately again.  “He’s had some hard times.  See those scars?” His hand touched a knot. Then his face tensed as he expressed another thought: “He’s kind of little.  He’s littler than the other trees and grows in his own way.  Maybe somebody walked on him when he was a baby.  But look.”  He pointed to a higher branch. “He’s got good, big leaves.  He’s growing bigger.”  The grin was as brilliant as the light that patterned his face.

Mr. Larsen saw the tree bend in a new gust and whisper something to the boy who patted it once more before he turned to go in.

 

 


 

 

FIDELITY

The package said his new shears with the stainless steel blades could cut a branch three‑quarters of an inch in diameter.  He found one about that large and cut it cleanly at the trunk.  Soon twigs and suckers puddled under the tree as he created a bowl shape that sun and insect spray could fall into.

He stepped into the tree from the ladder, reaching with the lopping shears for a small limb that was growing at a bad angle.  His leg wobbled with the elastic sway of his foothold. He dropped the loppers in clutching to sapplesteady himself, then had to climb down after them.  He moved the ladder in closer.

So many years he’d pruned this apple tree.  It bore the scars of major surgery as well as the nodules of removal of countless suckers that always grew back with undiminished enthusiasm.  In the apple’s biennial cycle, he could expect a bumper crop this year.

He felt a pact with the tree he had never broken:  When he fertilized, pruned, and sprayed, the tree gave huge, burgundy red apples.  These he plucked and placed bruiselessly in boxes, his offering of love to friends and family.

Upon the ladder again, he reached for the highest shoots, cutting them just above a bud that would sprout in the right direction, the judgment made without hesitation through years of practice.

One shoot he had to lean for escaped his first grab.  He leaned farther and felt himself overset, losing his balance, the ladder tipping.  He somehow steadied himself on a limb, trembling.  That had been close.  He knew that he would be sore and limping from wrenched muscles tomorrow.

He had moved the ladder in as close to the trunk as it would go.  He looked at the limbs, trying to find a safe path to the upstarts and saw only danger.  If he fell and broke something . . . .  Better safe than sorry, he told himself, his muscles twitching as he climbed down again.  After all, when the tree was leaved out, it would look okay. Yet, he hated to leave those unpruned shoots like an unmowed swath in a hayfield—a broken promise.

He put the ladder, loppers, gloves and shears away in the shed as usual, but this year he didn’t stand back and admire his work.  He told himself that no one would notice, but the failure continued to bother him.  Two possibili­ties occurred to him: hire a young person to prune or have the whole tree cut down.  Either course seemed a betrayal, somehow.

Then he remembered he had bought a tool at the gardening supply.   He found it in the shed and poked the new, pole-mounted lopper towards the high branches he hadn’t been able to reach. He pulled the rope that closed the blade. He grinned at the old tree as the shoot tumbled to the ground, waving the pole in salute to his old friend.

Time Bomb

 

Steve made out, through a light powdering of snow, the inscription: Louisa Gibbs Smith, March 24, 1946—April 13, 1998.  The last of her seven children, he hadn’t visited his mother’s grave since he was twelve, but now he had come for an accounting.

 

            The cold air made his cough worse.  Nothing yet known to science seemed to be able to stop the eruption of a cancer three of his mother’s children had contracted nor to predict whether the others who didn’t have it had passed on the tendency to their offspring.  Bill his eldest brother was at this moment coughing to death in a hospital, so Steve couldn’t ask Bill what he thought of the bane he had inherited.  Bill had five children.  Two of their sisters with the disease had six and four children. Of these, up to half could die early of cancer unless acancer modern genetic discovery intervened.

 

            Was it worth it?  The question had more meaning than ever before as he planned to marry a valiant woman who vowed to accept with joy the time they could get and trust the future to God.  But children!  The foundation studying the family heredity predicted that perhaps 40 percent of his offspring would die in their later forties or fifties, having been around long enough to have implanted the tendency in their children.  They would probably also have passed on genes for musical and mathematical abilities far above the average.  He asked himself if he had the right to plant seeds whose potential for good was so blatantly marred.

 

            If he died in, say, ten or fifteen years, leaving children to grow up without him, would that be a gift or a curse?  He thought, “What if my own mother and father had known what they were passing on and refused to have me?  What if I had never been born?” His answer had to be in his contributions and in his sense of life’s abundance.  When it came down to it, the question he was asking was, “Am I worth it?”

 

Ms. Kemp

 

Kale-SmoothieJessica screamed, “I hate you!” and slammed the door as she left the house.  Ms. Kemp saw her arms pumping as she butted, head down, into a hostile world.  She had pleaded that she hadn’t been able to do anything with her hair and she would be late if her mother did not give her a ride to school. Ms. Kemp had calmly replied that she must get up a little earlier if she was to have time to walk the three blocks. And wasn’t it a lovely day for walking?

 

Ms. Kemp had her own problems getting ready for work this morning.  She and Jessica had hurriedly torn open their Valentines to each other and exchanged hugs at breakfast (instant with spinach in it). So now Ms. Kemp could not pretend that she had not yet received her gift nor ignore it.  Face it, she told herself, you will have to wear it all day lest Jessica check up on you and find another excuse to hate you.

 

Twelve years old was probably not the most difficult age she would ever be.  As a counsellor, Ms. Kemp theorized that this was only the beginning.  An inauspicious one, perhaps.  Some kids just had a harder case of adolescence than others.  So she’d better wear her basic black and flaunt the neck piece, carry it off somehow.

 

What Jessica had made for her mother was a wood heart about half an inch thick by four inches, top to point.  A border of curlicues and the words “Have you hugged your Psychologist today?” had been crowded onto the red painted surface.  It was heavy and awkward, but she would wear it because Jessica was sure to ask and Ms. Kemp would not lie to her daughter.

 

Ms. Kemp took pride in adorning her fashionably slender, long legged body with smart, very low key, but beautifully stylish clothes. The heart hanging from its red ribbon just below the bust line looked grotesque.  Her clients asked about it understandingly.  The staff snickered or razzed her.  Reactions of the partners ranged from understanding smiles to surprised looks followed by averted eyes. Mr. Black had openly disapproved of her, but then he always disapproved.  She’d even worn the heart to her professional organization’s planning meeting/lunch at Smirnoff’s.  Somehow she got through the ordeal tattered but honor intact.

 

It was Jessica’s turn to cook, thank heavens.  The smell of TV dinners in the oven greeted her nose as she removed her jacket to reveal her fidelity and love.

 

Jessica’s shocked screech grated: “Mother, don’t tell me you wore that!”

 

“Jessica, isn’t this a necklace?”

 

“Do you think I’m, like, eight?”  Insulted.  “I’d never make something so gross for you to wear!  Like, how tacky!”

 

“Then what is it for?”

 

“It’s for your office wall!  It’s a decoration!  You mean you actually wore it, like, all day?  I bet you told everybody I made it for you! Oh, Mother, how could you?”  And she slammed the door to her room.