Friday, February 27, 2015


First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I hear voices. These come from children, women and men who are speaking about the bullies in our lives, those that use manipulation, coercion, intimidation and ideology to justify egregious acts in our homes, schoolyards, workplaces, sports arenas, corporations, and countries. Some voices are faint and I strain to hear the words; others are loud enough to be heard around the world; and then, there is a deafening silence that scares me the most.

ideology (as in "political orientation") n. : an orientation that characterizes the thinking of a group or nation

There are bullies of all kinds that threaten our every day lives: humans, viruses, emotions, nature. But the deadliest bully out there among us is ideology; it can kill you, or worse, put you through insufferable torture. Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website that championed free speech in the autocratic kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His blog, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum, was shut down after his arrest in 2012. Because he is deemed to be unhealthy from the first 50 lashes, his weekly flogging has been deferred until he has regained some of his health.

His plight has not gone unnoticed; there has been a global outcry against the “cruel and inhuman” punishment by many worldwide human activists and the UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, and other countries, are expressing disapproval. The United States and the United Kingdom have been mostly silent on the subject. I wonder if when I fill my gas tank, blood runs through the hose, too.

There is an ironic twist in the case of Souad al-Shammari, who co-founded the Saudi Liberal Network with Raif Badawi, being freed after 90 days at a women’s prison in Jeddah. She was arrested in late October for the same charges against Badawi, insulting Islam, having posted comments on Twitter about Islamic religious leaders, but has been released through an amnesty program; but that will not be granted to Raif Badawi if he is forgotten or dead from ill health.

Raif Badawi has a slingshot against a Goliath, but this slightly built young man has a voice and the strength of convictions that already has impacted the international conscience. I have never met Raif Badawi or Souad al-Shammari, in person, only through the media, but if I could meet them face to face, I would thank them for their courage of convictions and enduring cruel, inhumane punishment for their ideology; for speaking up for the rights of men and women, not only in their country, but for universal rights, rights all human beings deserve.

These atrocities continue daily around the world. The Isis (Islamic State) is foremost in the news with its heinous acts against foreigners and its own people. What justification can there ever be for murder? And gunning down thirteen young boys because they watched a soccer game and broke sharia laws?

France hunted down the Islamic terrorists that murdered those at the magazine headquarter, Charlie Hebdo, killing the three cowards. Then had widely publicized discussion on freedom of speech, and rights of burial for the bodies that no one would claim. Did those reprobates deserve such consideration? No, not for them, but yes, for us; our humanity demands it.

Funny word, conviction. Defined by New Oxford Dictionary as:
conviction |kənˈvikSHən| noun
1 a formal declaration that someone is guilty of a criminal offense, made by the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge in a court of law: she had a previous conviction for a similar offense.
2 a firmly held belief or opinion: his conviction that the death was no accident | she takes pride in stating her political convictions. • the quality of showing that one is firmly convinced of what one believes or says: his voice lacked conviction.

I am not sure if Raif Badawi is foolish or brave, maybe both, to have have put himself in mortal jeopardy by blogging about his convictions. He and Souad al-Shammari have made me question some of my own convictions, wondering just how vocal would I be if I thought I would be arrested, flogged or murdered. I am pretty smug about my constitutional rights to freedom of speech and fair, just and moral treatment if convicted of a crime, but I also know that there is always a possibility that an extremist could take exception to what I say and feel justified in killing me. I watched the football game on SuperBowl Sunday with my family, and never would imagine being executed, as the thirteen young teenage boys were by Isis extremists. If it came down to it, would I give up my gas-guzzling SUV if it meant sanctions against Saudi Arabia? Would I go to jail for my beliefs? Would I put myself in harm’s way for my convictions?

Frankly, I don’t know. But I hope that the voice of my conscience would be too loud for me to deny it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 5

Rodger wiped his wet face against his sleeve. Traces of Sam’s blood smeared his cheek. He looked at his friend’s body, so still, so calm, so dead. He longed to be up there with his men fighting the Japanese. If only Sam had had enough time to put together the guts of his plane! But there hadn’t been enough time. There was so much more to be said and done.

“Sam,” he whispered, “I forgot to tell you about Chicago.” The sky darkened, silhouetting the jigging planes. “Man, it was so strange. Big Red’s house burning down, and that damned effigy—not knowing if it was him swinging from the tree. My girl gone. Dee just took off without so much as ‘good‑bye, sucker.’ Winning the Golden Gloves became the most important thing in my life.”

Rodger crossed Sam’s hands across his chest. “I understand my father, I guess. I knew he couldn’t go along with me and Manny to Chicago. But I hated him for it. For sending Vern instead.” The bitterness throbbed in his throat.

“If it hadn’t been for Ada letting us drive her Chevy up there, I’d have run away. But you know, Sam, Ada and I are friends from way back when I was a kid. I love her more than my own mother.”

Like one of the old Tom Mix cowboy movies he had loved so much as a boy, the memories reeled forward for him to view dispassionately. His eyes fixed on the battle over on the night horizon as scenes with all of the right characters and dialogue played itself out.

He hadn’t wanted to leave like he did, his mother all upset and his sisters asleep. He remembered how he had crept into Heather and Rachel’s bedroom. Shadows from the full moon fell across their beds, and as he listened to their muted baby snores, he knew he meant to leave and not come home again.

Early the next morning, he left the house without good‑byes. He met Ada on her porch, and for a horrible moment he almost could not go. The last thing he had told her was about Uncle Kyle flying with the RAC in Africa.

Then he had kissed her, too quickly, on the cheek. Her parting words had been, “Show them what Big Red taught you!”

Vern Slater drove. Rodger and Manny would have ditched Vern once they got to Chicago, but Vern bird‑dogged them. He watched them sleep, eat, dress, spar.

Vern didn’t know his toes from his butt about how things worked at the ring. Manny took care of it, all the time reassuring Vern, convincing him to go back to the hotel and not wait up for them. Manny knew lots, knew parts of Chicago that the good boys didn’t. Rodger and Manny slipped out the back door and went to the joints to place bets and make deals.

The next day at the gym the throng of men moved as one body, voices pitching words like lobbed tennis balls. The other guy’s trainer, a heavy‑shouldered man with piggy eyes and greasy black hair, taunted them, trying to shake up Rodger. Rodger didn’t shake.

The press skittered around, asking questions of bystanders and trainers and boxers.

“Say, aren’t you ‘The Kid’? Can you sum up any philosophy you might have about boxing, son?”

“Put up or shut up.”

Rodger had wanted to tell the reporter about Big Red: explain how the man’s words formed patterns that he moved through. But it was stupid to think it would have meant something to anyone else.

Mad Maloney versus The Kid. Rodger almost lost the championship, playing too long. The crowd, booing and catcalling, hated the way Rodger wore Maloney down dancing around him. Maloney shuffled and swung wide. In the last round, Rodger knocked him unconscious. Sent him to the hospital.

That’s not how he had wanted it; it just didn’t feel like a fair fight. And the crowd had clapped and hollered, stamping the ground with their feet. All for the blood of it.

He’d headed for the underside of Chicago. He got lost there among people who didn’t give a damn about the beat up face of a small-town white boy. Women swept steps; men moved together in groups down the sidewalks.

Then that house with chipped and flaking brown paint, a black-lettered sign dangling from a broken chain that read: Rooms To Let. The big woman in a purple house dress, her arms beneath the torn sleeves bulging with fat.

“Ten a month. Cash in advance. No smoking, no drinking and,” smiling, exposing blackened, rotting teeth, “no women.” She scratched her belly. “I give you one meal, dinner. If you’re not here, you don’t eat.”

Disgusted, Rodger, had not replied, but turned and walked rapidly down the street. Then on the steps that might have another lodging house, he had come across a Negro slumped against the railings. The man moaned and swayed, clutching his side.

“Are you all right?” Rodger had moved toward him, but the stench of neglect and despair had repelled him. The black man slowly widened his lids, focusing his yellowed eyes on Rodger.

“Hey, man, I’m a sight better than you.”

“Know a decent place to lay down my things for a few nights?”

“All of God’s green earth, son, is good enough to lay down on.”

Rodger had thrown two fifty‑cent pieces into the old man’s lap. Claw‑like fingers scooped them up and hurriedly slid them into a pocket. Looking suspiciously left and right, he hunched his shoulders and whispered, “Down the street. Mrs. Mason boards. Don’t ask no questions.”

Rodger had flipped another fifty‑cent coin into the fumbling hands that cupped themselves with remarkable speed.

“Hey, boy, you can stay and talk all day if ya want. I got all sorts of ears.”

Rodger walked on. His wallet was full of winnings—mostly ill‑gotten gains from smokers. He had money, time and no friends. He had walked on until he had spied the brownstone house with a small, weather‑eaten sign that read: Mason, 113 Cane Blvd. Mrs. Mason, faded beauty, and her beautiful tawny‑skinned girl, Della. Della with the whiskey-colored eyes and seductive smirk.

His terrible aloneness. Searching for a job. One rejection after another. Until Sally. He found her on the street with lips that were smooth and naturally dark, trimmed with pink flesh, slightly parted to reveal even, front teeth; and in whose eyes he couldn’t find the black pupil and the iris, only two sparks of yellow in the middle.

She had been bold; he had been naїve. Finally she had asked him bluntly, “Cat got your tongue?” then laughed, throwing back her head and shaking her bandanna‑covered head. “Looks like a big un got ya, too.”

Rodger had laughed. When they had caught their breath, he offered her his arm. She snorted, not removing her hands from her hips.

Then abruptly she said, “My name’s Sally. What’s yours?”


About to put her arm through his, she pulled away. “I got a sister, Jane, too.” She glared at him.

“What a coincidence! I have a dog named Spot.” He smiled at her.

She shook her head, giggles erupting from her compressed mouth. Rodger took her arm again, waiting for her to lead. Two blocks and to the right on Maple, near Farren Park, she hesitated before a flight of stairs going into a rundown brownstone building. Rodger dropped her arm and waited. Wordlessly, he followed her up three flights of stairs to her room.

“Wanna beer?”

“If you’ll have one with me.”

A bed covered with a single dingy sheet was the only place to sit. Rodger sank heavily into the mattress, with Sally sliding into him as she sat down. They clicked bottles and sipped without talking. Sally jumped up and fumbled with a radio, bringing disjointed, strained voices into the room. She stood so close to him he could feel the heat from her body. He reached up and took her hand.

They held hands several minutes before Sally shook free her hand and broke the silence.

“What happened to you?” The beer gurgled in her throat while she drank down the last of it.

“Tried my hand at the Golden Glove Championship. Maybe I should’ve tried my feet, too, huh?”

She caressed his cheek with her free hand, barely touching her fingertips to his skin, trailing liquid fire down his temple to his throat and up his other cheek. Her fingers played across his eyelids, smoothing down the corners, around the temple, over the bridge of his nose, and retracing the path again and again.

Her hand came across his lips, and he kissed it. She jerked, then resumed a circular stroke on his chin. She put down her beer bottle, balanced herself on his shoulders, and kissed him. As he put his hands to her waist, she pushed, and they both tumbled into the bed, holding tightly onto each other. With slow deliberation, they made love. Like old friends, they comforted each other in the stillness of night.

Afterwards, Sally had collected matches and cigarettes in one hand, pinching together two sweaty bottles of beer with the other. Rodger swapped her an empty bottle for a full one, and Sally propped herself against the wall, using the discarded bottle as an ashtray. Rodger stretched out beside her, cradling his head in his arms. Sally took the pillow that would be his and shoved it behind her.

She spoke about the city, places where he might go scout a job. Maybe even where she worked, Republic Steel, the Southside plant. He closed his eyes and let her resonant voice wash over him.

The rustling movements of a woman dressing awakened him. Sunlight fought its way through the dirtied window, casting a sullied light throughout the room. Rodger blinked hard.

“Sal, where are you?”

She came from the bathroom, dressed in denim overalls and work shirt, tying a bandanna.

“Lazy‑lover, get up and get yerself a bath. I left you a towel by the door.” Rodger went to caress her, but she avoided him. “Hurry up or I’ll be late for work.”

She wiped his back for him after his bath. He grabbed her, hugging her tight. “Hey, Sal, let’s go to the International Market. I haven’t seen it. I could pick you up after work and we’ll walk over there. Or is it too far?”

She pushed away from him. He followed her into the kitchen.

Bending over the sink, she called out, “I got bread for toast.”

“We could have dinner at a diner on the corner of 54th.”

“Ain’t got butter, though. You’ll have to have it dry.”

“Hey, Sal, for Pete’s sake...”

She whirled around as he came to stand beside her. “You born dumb, or do you work at it, white boy?”

The bitter words echoed in the tiny room. Rodger stared at her. She whisked a stray, wiry stand of hair underneath the scarf and continued boring straight into his eyes.

“You mean you won’t go anywhere with me?”

Sally shrugged, disgusted, and moved away from him. “Ain’t no place in this city a white and nigger can be seen in public.”

“Well, hell, I didn’t mean it as a personal insult. I just want to be with you. Do something nice with you.”

She softened, her shoulders slumping as she placed her hand on his forearm. “I guess you have what’s called ‘honorable intentions.’”

Rodger dressed. He took out his wallet and offered it to her.

Sally pushed it away. “Ain’t no charge for friends. You all come back and stay the night with me again. Maybe Thursday. I gotta go.” She quickly pecked his stubbled cheek, squeezing his arm as she opened the door. “You make some toast for yourself. Push the little button inside the door and just shut it good before you leave. See you, lover.”

“Hey, Sal, take care of yourself. I’ll see you again.”

“Sure, lover‑boy. Come back real soon.”

Rodger combed his hair, staying in the bathroom until he no longer heard her footsteps on the stairs. Then he took a fifty dollar bill, folded it into a ring, and put it by the toaster.

Rodger shook his head at the phantom images, an acute sense of weariness flooding through his body. Sam, at least would get a medal of some kind.

His voice shaky at first, he leaned over Sam, “Yeah, Sam, I was just a dumb white boy, nineteen, thinking things were all right just because they were. Until Chicago. I got smart. The smart kid on the block. The boy with the “golden” touch. I joined the AAU summer camp then went right into the cavalry.”

He straightened Sam’s shirt, patting his chest. “It was all so easy, Sam, the way things fell into place. I was one of those qualified to fly, so I got to fly. And command. It was that simple. I even boxed a few times and won at my weight. A hero. A god‑damned hero.”

In the quiet of the night, an explosion reverberated. A plane downed. Rodger felt LinChing’s presence, the shadow man. As he stood, he motioned to Sam’s body. “Will you take care of him? The boys are comin’ in.”

LinChing nodded. The first of the three planes came in, the wheels screeching plaintively in the strangely calm night air.

Rodger tensed. “There’re only three home.” He walked briskly toward McGree’s plane.

McGree threw back the canopy and shouted, “Five out of seven of the bastards!”

The others, Barnes and Stevens, were taxiing into the revetments. Rodger’s stomach knotted. He watched as they climbed down from the wings and grouped around one another, congratulating each other.

Rodger approached them. As the four formed a half‑circle, he looked from one face to another. “We’ll give Buck an airman’s burial in the morning.”

All heads nodded in solemn assent. They would fly over his wreck in formation, the final farewell to a fallen comrade.

Rodger turned on his heel, walking with slow, measured steps. “Let’s have a drink.” His men close behind him, Rodger led the way back to the hut.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Bully Dogs Chapter 4: Possibilities

Our sixth-grade girls’ volleyball team had a practice match with the seventh-grade boys. I saw Dean on the sidelines, but he didn’t get to play that game. He saw me, too, and waved. I said “Hi” as I walked by him to get into my position. I stayed in the whole game and managed to score eleven points in the three sets, which I thought was pretty good.

Apparently, Marcy didn’t. She made it plain, loud and clear in front of everyone, that I wasn’t in the right place at the right time. “Hey, Fanny, why don’t you try hitting the ball over the net, not under it?” she yelled, then stomped to the server’s square. She smacked the volleyball so far out of bounds she could have scored two points if we’d been playing basketball.

But no one said anything to her, at least nothing nasty. “Good shot!” cried Sue, clapping, and everyone laughed. Except me. It seemed if Ursala, Sue, Annie, or Marcy goofed up, it was all one big joke and “too bad,” but if anyone else made a mistake, it was a crime against the team. Not only at volleyball, but in all the other sports, too.

Sometimes being around them made me so mad I wanted to explode, but tonight I felt deflated, like all the air in me had been let out at once, and I couldn’t find the energy to speak up. We played for two games out of three, and Marcy kept up a running commentary on my mistakes the whole time.

We won one, lost two to the boys. Dean got to play, and I was secretly glad that he was better than anyone would have thought. He didn’t say much to any of the guys, or to anyone for that matter, but went about his business as if he didn’t care what others were doing or thinking. He managed to get the ball over the net on his serves and when it came to him. The last game, we lost by one point. Most of the seventh-grade boys stayed long enough afterwards to tell us that we were pretty good and they hoped we would win our game against St. John’s. Marcy and Sue said they would stay after our game to watch the boys play and root for them. I wasn’t sure I could make a promise like that without checking it out with my mom first. And I’m sure that’s why the rest of the girls didn’t say anything, either, to the boys before they left.

Miss Ford said we had a good chance at winning, especially if we played as a team, not as individuals. I wished she would have looked right at Marcy when she spoke to us.

“Lots of teamwork, girls. Remember, front row helps out back, and middle moves in on the other side’s serve. You did an excellent job tonight—those boys have been together as a team since fourth grade, and you saw how it makes a difference. Teamwork!” She slapped her clipboard so loud that it startled all of us.

Then she laughed, waving us good-bye. “Good night, and see you Thursday at seven. On time!”

Seemed to me, she had meant every girl had done a good job, at least the best she could tonight.

Of course, not everyone would’ve agreed with me. Marcy, Sue, and Ursala were standing out on the sidewalk waiting for their ride. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Fran found another hobby, like basket weaving?” Marcy said as I passed by.

“Just ignore her,” Annie advised. “What does she know?”

I swallowed hard before I found my voice. “I wish she weren’t so good at sports.”

“Yeah,” Annie sympathized, “but she makes mistakes, too. We all do, Fran. And aren’t you always saying ‘it’s just a game’?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t seem like just a game when someone’s yelling at you in front of everyone.”

“I don’t know why she thinks she can tell everyone what to do. Maybe it’s because she’s so good that Miss Ford lets her.” Annie shrugged.

Even though I felt better talking to her, I didn’t think I could explain to Annie so she’d really know how I felt. Marcy never yelled at her and made snide remarks to her as she walked by.

“See you tomorrow, Annie.”

“How’d practice go, Frances?” Mom handed me a book that had come in the mail from the library.

“Uh, great.” I snatched the book out of her hand as we pulled away from the curb. “We played the seventh-grade boys, but lost two out of three games.”

“I think it says a lot for your team that you could win one game against a stronger team. The boys start a month earlier, and haven’t they played a year longer than you girls?”

“Uh, yeah,” I answered, burying my nose between the cover of The Wind in the Willows. For at least the rest of tonight, I’d have better things to think about than volleyball.

What I like best about reading good books is getting away from “real” life. Even though whatever happens in a story couldn’t happen in my life, I know how the character feels going through the good and bad stuff. I sometimes wished I could have the opportunity to face the same challenges, and hopefully, win. And I’d like to make the good things in the stories real in my world here and let all the bad things in the world just be ideas on pages of a book. Then the heroes and heroines could take care of all the evil in the books, and we would have all the good right here in our world.

I wondered, though, was it possible to be good all the time? I’d try, but Mom would always find something wrong, at least once a day. Like that evening.

“Frances,” she’d began to scold, “please pick up your towel and hang it up. And let the water out of the tub and dry your hair.”

“At least I took out the garbage,” I muttered, doing all the tasks she’d asked me to do.

“But you forgot to put in the liner.” My mom always had to have the last remark to anything I’d say.

“But I took it out without you having to ask, didn’t I? And I hung up my clothes before you said to. And put extra paper towels under the sink and swept the porch a little.” She shook her head and was about to interrupt me so I headed her off, “I know; I said ‘a little.’”

“I was just going to say that you’re right. I’m guilty of not telling you how much I appreciate the things you do. I guess it doesn’t hurt to remind me.” Before I could say anything, she added, “Once in a while.”

I at least got to sleep with a smile, having won that round with my mom. I only wished that I had spoken up and pointed out to Marcy the good things I’d done for the team.

Or I could have so easily avoided the bully dogs on my way to school the next morning. Like torpedoes, they came at me from the bushes I hadn’t ever noticed growing in the Delong’s front yard. I made a mad dash for the short cut across the corner-store parking lot and ditched all three dogs. I heard the screech of brakes but didn’t turn around. If one of them got hit, please, I prayed, let it be the big, black Lab, although I immediately revised that prayer. I didn’t want those creatures of my nightmares to be killed, particularly chasing me, but it did occur to me there would be an element of justice in it.

All that running made me early that morning, and Annie wasn’t waiting by the doors. Marcy and Sue were there, so I stood by the railing on the top stair and took out my book to begin another chapter.

“Hello, Fran,” Ursala said to me as she passed by to join Marcy and Sue.

“Hi,” I replied but saw no reason to stop reading to chat. Besides, she probably wouldn’t have stopped to talk with me with Marcy and Sue right there to see her.

“Good luck in the spelling bee today,” Ursala said to me as we filed down the hall to the classroom.

I was too stunned to say anything but, “Thanks.” It was funny, but until then I hadn’t thought of anyone wishing for me to win. I just didn’t know if she meant it for real or if she and Marcy would get a good laugh out of it if I didn’t win.

There’s Mass before first recess, and we all have to attend. Today Father Gavin reminded us that the Apostles didn’t come by their faith easily and that we should look deep into our hearts and make a commitment to God. Sometimes just getting to school was commitment enough for me, let alone worrying about whether I had any faith or not; but other times, like today, I wondered if I had enough faith. I didn’t think I would have wanted the life of an Apostle, that’s for sure, although it would have been neat to have known Jesus Christ.

I wondered if Christ ever sweated out a spelling test when he was just a kid learning in the temple. Maybe he didn’t have to learn how to spell with twelve Apostles to write it all down for him. Maybe, instead, he had to learn how to speak in front of a crowd, which would have been a thousand times harder for me to do.

Tina and I got picked to be hall monitors for the morning. We made sure everyone who left the classroom had a pass and that there wasn’t a mess of books or papers left anywhere outside in the hall. If someone needed to go to the office or the nurse, one of us had to be an escort. I didn’t mind being a monitor because then I didn’t have to go out to recess and play in the barnyard. And sure enough, Steve got a ball kicked in his face and had a bloody nose, so I told Tina she had better walk him to the nurse’s office. I sure the heck didn’t want to be the one walking beside him with all that blood streaming from his nose and splattering his jacket. He would have found some excuse to get mad at me about it, I was sure.

Steve was still in the nurse’s office ten minutes before the spelling bee. I got a little nervous, wondering if he was going to make it back when Mrs. Hammershaw called me over to her desk.

“Fran, would you go check on Steve and ask him if he feels well enough to be in the spelling bee?” She handed me a pass, and I hurried down the hall.

Steve was sitting up on the cot, a washcloth pressed over his nose and his head thrown back, just touching the window sill.

“Mrs. Hammershaw wants to know if you’re well enough to go to the spelling bee. We have to be there in five minutes.” I watched the traffic zipping by the window above his head, trying to think of all the places the people might have been going.

Steve tossed the washcloth onto the little stainless steel table and got up. “I’m all right, now. It was just a little nosebleed.”

I pointed out the obvious to him. “That’s an awful lot of blood all over your jacket. Why don’t you take it off?”

“Why don’t you mind your own business, Franny?” But he took off the jacket as we came to the auditorium and stuffed it behind a trash can by the door.

It seemed a thousand eyes followed us as we climbed the stairs upstage. Conversations rippled through the building, and you could hear bursts of laughter and groans as the lower grades came in to be seated. The room seemed hotter than it should have been and got louder as the shuffling of feet mixed with squeaky voices and deep-throated whispers.

I saw Timothy load spit balls in his mouth and aim at Annie’s neck. Sue turned around and gave him a dirty look when one hit her on the ear. I almost cracked up when I saw Marcy’s ponytail turning white. But it was a sure thing that Timothy was going to get caught once Marcy reached back to fluff her hair.

“Gross!” she wailed, her voice lifting over all the other noise. “Gross!!” she screamed again, as the pellets rained down like huge hunks of dandruff.

No one ratted on Timothy, though. Mrs. Aster tapped the microphone until everyone quieted. Before she could say anything, a piercing wahhhaahhhhh echoed from the mike, and it took five minutes to get the cord fixed to that the awful sound stopped.

By then, we were all trying to stifle yawns and stretch without seeming to move. We all could have died of terminal boredom before anyone would have learned how to spell it.

Mrs. Aster raised her hands and asked for God’s blessing. “And children,” she began with an attempt at humor, “only angels may whisper the answers to the contestants. Let’s all be real quiet and listen, perhaps learn, too. Good luck to our two sixth graders and to all of our seventh graders. Let’s begin.”

“Fran,” Mrs. Morety’s clear voice demanded my attention, for sure, “you’ll start us off with ‘possibilities’”.

I wiped my sweaty palms down the smooth corduroy of my pants and stood up, thinking if I could only find my voice, I might yet get it right.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 4

Ada dusted Rodger’s all‑star football trophy from his senior year in high school. She had tucked it away on the shelf above her bed, out of sight of any probing eyes. She paused, tracing the outline of the hand holding the football, wondering about Rodger. She wrote him long letters about Wilmington and those left behind, adding several postscripts about Adele and his sisters, Rachel and Heather. Ada touched her library book, A Farewell to Arms, thinking she should get Rodger a copy and lend this one to John. Lately John had been taken by surprise more than once when Ada brought up something Rodger had written in his letters. Even Adele did not hide her irritation that Ada knew more than she did.

Ada sighed. It’s not that she really had more of Rodger than they; no, not really. She just had that part of him she had helped free a long time ago.

The mailman’s shrill whistle sounded. Ada laid aside her dust rag, wiping her hands across her apron as she entered the living room, then caught her dangling eyeglasses and pushed them up onto the bridge of her nose as she stooped to retrieve her two letters. Both were postmarked from overseas. She had just received a letter from Rodger last week. A sharp pang hit her in the gut and she tightened her hands around the letters.

She stood before her curtained front window, watching the afternoon shadows on the sidewalk and trees. A breeze stirred the limbs of the sycamore, and they waved gently back and forth. Ada looked down at the letters, then outside, wishing she could delay the inevitable. She slowly tore open the top one, the thinner of the two. It was indeed from Rodger.

She knew, she knew from the first cramped “Dearest Ada” that he would tell her of Sam.

“Sam was killed during a raid here. I personally have taken care of sending him home.”

Sam dead. Sam coming home in a casket. Sam and her nevermore. For a moment she could not breathe, the pain in her heart overwhelmed her. She clutched at her throat, gasping; then the tears began.

Soon the afternoon shadows deepened. Ada watched John walking home from the Longhorn Bank, swinging his umbrella, the evening newspaper gripped in his left hand. His long, slender body moved smoothly when he walked, his wide shoulders always thrown back proudly. Ada saw clearly his unlined, handsome face with deep-set blue eyes, almost turquoise, that really seemed to twinkle. She wanted to cry out to him, to lean into his arms and sob on his shoulder. But the tears came again, and she bowed her head over the letters, the long, government forms that had to be filled out immediately, and the one from Rodger. Memories, unbidden and unwanted, tumbled around her head like weeds caught in a sandstorm. Finally, she closed her eyes and forced an image of Sam’s face that calmed the tumult. She had another memory, ten years ago, that belonged to her alone: the turning time of their lives.

Oh, how she recalled that day, down to the last detail! She saw it all in slow motion, a movie reel with the sound inside her head; she, the leading lady, and Sam, her leading man. Ada had walked across town, picking up Rodger’s sweaty clothes from the gym and the colored folks’ mending at the church. Then, as she had planned, she took a lunch over to the hangar where Sam kept his beloved Lucy. Spreading out the picnic lunch on the rickety card table, Ada waited for him to join her as she poured coffee from the urn in his office into his thermos.

Her chair scraped the concrete floor. Sam jerked his head around to look. Ada dusted her hands of the crumbs and, aware of his stare, drank her coffee with little sips.

“Sam, you always had a way with women. But,” she had teased, “your charms fall short of your coffee.”

“Well, hell, most of the time it’s just me and don’ pay no attention to how much scoops I’m putting in. If you’d tell a body when you planned on comin’, I’d have us a regular tea party.”

“Now, Sam, that would be entirely against my nature. Even might detract from my womanly charm. Why don’t you admit that you like me to surprise you once in a while?”

“Umph.” He shifted around to look at Lucy again. He folded his arms against his chest, his defense from her she supposed. After all these many years, there should not have been so many barriers between them, so many little misunderstandings. She had never even mentioned him to any of her relatives or friends, for what they were to each other was a habit, two people in the same place with time to spare for each other.

He had picked her out of a crowd at the fair, the first fair she had gone to after her husband and son were killed. It was the way the plane burst through the air, the noise and strangeness of it, that had drawn her to the field to watch. Barnstorming, is what they called it. Sam was giving rides to all interested paying customers. Ada had stood aside, observing, until the crowd had waned. Then, like a wild man, Sam had grabbed her hand and yanked her over to the plane where fumes pulsated with the dry summer heat.

She hadn’t said no; she couldn’t although she felt herself suffocating.

He was looking at her again. “You have the same look about you that you did the first time I saw you.”

Ada blushed, so close was he to knowing her mind. But it was like that between them, friends that had secrets.

“And what exactly is that “look” you’re always mentioning?”

“Well,” he fumbled, his turn to be embarrassed, “sorta like a critter that gets itself out of a pretty decent cage. It’s on the outside looking in, asking itself if it isn’t all a big mistake.”

Freedom. Perhaps he had seen her longing exposed in her eyes, her face, her body. Being around him and that damned Lucy always made her want to go places, other places with strange faces and exotic names. She closed her eyes to peek out of the slits, to narrow her vision of Sam and Lucy.

“Perhaps the worst sort of freedom, Sam, is the kind we don’t ask for.”

“You could have married again, Ada. You’re the one who preaches to me that there are many ways to love.”

“But the man I love, my friend, is not mine to have. I would rather not have the cake without the icing.”

“There’s more than one bakery you could shop in.”

Ada laughed. It was the longest conversation they had for in years. Sam was always on the move, in demand as an airplane mechanic now that his barnstorming days were over. For all his gruff and surly ways, Sam was a worrier. He wanted an ordered universe, a home town with seasonal changes and a woman friend or two. So little from such a demanding sort of man.

“How about you Sam? Did you think to buy the whole pie and not just a little tart?”

He growled at her, waving at Lucy. “I got me all the female companion and nasty disposition I need between the two of you. Now, it looks like I even got a kid to boot.”

Ada sat up straight. She knew, knew it as surely as the day was split into the bright blue of the sky and the green‑brown of the earth. She whispered, almost too afraid of being right, “Is his name Rodger?”

“Huh? Yeah, the kid that comes here and watches me work. You know him?”

“Yes. He’s a very special friend of mine, too.”

“I ain’t calling him ‘friend.’ Odd kid, in a way.” Sam glared at her once more, resting his face on his elbows that all came down on the card table with a soft plop. “He comes around for weeks, sneaking a look. Then one day he comes up to me, and I yell at him to get the hell outta here. Then he gets real brave and tells me he’s got to be around my Lucy.”

“And you told him he could stay.”

“Not exactly, Miss Smarty‑pants. He’s got to earn his way.” He leaned closer to her, and she bent into him. “Funny thing, about that kid. I got a feeling he’ll be a flyer, a good one. He listens.” Sam tapped the side of his forehead. “And he thinks.”

“What’s the point of encouraging him, Sam?”

“Ah, hell Ada! It’s just for fun. A man don’t know his future at thirteen.”

“Or at your age, either.”

Sam glared at her, but she would not back down. Maybe Rodger, too, sensed her disapproval. It alarmed her, the risks he took at such an early age, not for the usual reasons of showing off to his friends. She couldn’t trust Sam to discourage this nonsense. Rodger would be the perfect audience for him. Worse, she had to pretend she didn’t know about this until Rodger confided in her. She wondered if John knew; he couldn’t, or he would have stopped Rodger.

“Sam,” she spoke softly, drawing him back to her, “we’ve got one thing in common with married folks.”

“What the hell are ya talkin’ about, Ada?”

“Rodger.” The silence between them was peaceful, several quiet seconds flowing past them. “Take good care of him.”

“I will.” He replied so seriously that she had nothing to say back to him. They sat, drifting in the stillness of the sunshine. “Ya should have had more kids, Ada. A girl with your big brown eyes would have had the world at her feet.”

She smiled. “Doesn’t seem like they did me much good.”

“Ya kept them closed most your life, that’s why.”

Ada would not dispute him. She leaned back in her chair, tilting it off the ground. He figured her foolish in so many ways she wasn’t. She wondered if he would be less kind to her if he knew how she really was, how little she cared for the world.

It was the loss of her child, not the man she had married, that had left a hollow space in her heart. She had stopped loving Dan before Stevie was born. But the price of her freedom had enslaved her to her secrets. She no more could have stopped the reckless cabby from hitting her husband and son than she could turn back the hands of the old grandfather clock and say no to Dan’s marriage proposal. She knew that, she knew that. But it seemed such an ironic thing, a vicious stunt, like someone suddenly pulling the chair out from underneath you.

“Ya all right Ada? Ya look like you’re gonna cry. What did I say?”

“Nothing, Sam, nothing at all. Dust in the air makes my eyes water.”

She had to be more careful. She smiled for Sam, pouring them more coffee from the battered and smudged thermos. Sounds, the vibrations in the air of something distinctly familiar, caught both of them at the same time. Ada puzzled over it until Sam jumped from his chair, jabbing his finger up at the dazzling blue of the sky, shrieking, “I’ll be damned! Lookee there, Ada! It’s the Brown Mustache! Lookee up there!”

Still she couldn’t find the object, the sun blinded her. The noise intensified, then a small, rusty‑brown biplane swooped from the white cloud, down almost to the ground.

Sam wiped his hand across the top of his crew cut. His left hand jingled loose change in his pocket. The biplane was executing a series of loops, leaving cloud trails behind him. Suddenly Sam turned and clamped his hand down on Ada, pulling her roughly to her feet.

“Come on, gal. Let’s go chase a little tail in the sky.”

Dragging her over to Lucy, Sam quickly propped open the stepladder and shoved her forward, placing his hands firmly on her hips as she climbed into the back seat. Until she was actually seated, she did not think of saying no. She looked to the right and left of her as Sam pushed them in position so that he could taxi for take‑off.

It was a brilliant, sunlit day with a hint of fall’s breath. The beauty and warmth of the day pressed into Ada, and she relaxed against the back seat, pulling against the house dress until it covered her knees again. The trees began to whiz past them, blurring at the edges as Lucy’s engine yawned in noisy wakening. Ada jigged and bounced in rhythm with the singing wheels. Wisps of hair tickled her eyes, ears, and lips as she drew one long hairpin after another to catch and hold them to no avail. She dropped her hands to rest in her lap, resigning herself to the wind and speed and Sam’s skillful hands.

Snatches of earth colors and the intense blue of the sky mixed as Lucy dived and spun after the Brown Mustache. Sam’s Tarzan hollering would fade in echoes until Ada, forced by the driving wind, had to shut her eyes and be content to listen to the droning engine.

She no more understood why she was up there than she knew why she clung so to the habits of her life. She was young, still healthy at forty‑two, and reasonably well- provided for. Why didn’t she pack up and move somewhere, just for the change? Why was she allowing herself to be entrapped with all of this concern for Rodger? At the thought of him, she could picture his thirteen-year old’s face, so like his father’s. But it was Rodger’s smile that intrigued Ada, for that was all his own, neither John’s nor Madeline’s.

They were coming in for a landing, leveling out, momentarily suspended over the runway. Ada thought again of Rodger, his defiance as incentive for learning. And wasn’t it Sam who once said something about second love being the truest? True or not, she had known then she could never leave them. As Lucy settled onto the ground, Ada opened her eyes and regretted the ride had ended.

“Oh, my what a ride!” Ada exclaimed, throwing her back and laughing.

Sam’s not-too-handsome face was split wide in a clownish smile, as if he could not take enough air in, nor release enough laughter to fill the outside. The brown plane, easing gently away from their sight, waggled its wings, and Sam threw his arm up into a vigorous wave.

“Sam, I’d better get along home now.” They stopped beside the table. “Thanks for the exciting afternoon.”

“Oh, yeah. Ada, wasn’t it,…ah…well,” he faltered, spreading out his hands in front of him.

“Sam, I had a wonderful time.”

And she meant it. She packed things back inside the dented lunch pail. Then she unpinned her hair, shaking it loose, re-gathering it into a tight coil before jabbing the metal sticks back in. She swooped up her own bundles, smelling of Rodger’s sweat and the colored woman’s smoke. Sam was fussing with Lucy, his eyes frequently darting over to her. She pretended not to notice. Time pressed on her, and she quickened her steps. She brushed against Sam’s shoulder with her own, making him look up at her. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

“Bye, Ada.”

“See you soon, Sam.”

Ada shook loose from the webs of those memories and walked outside. Standing there beside her weedless garden she scanned the rows, each one neat and orderly. There were early tomato seedlings and rows of corn sprouting green leafage, and her favorites, vining zucchini and butternut squashes. As much as she loved her small, fertile plot of land, there were times she felt guilty about it. She had not spent the necessary time tending it when she was a wife and mother. It was too much of a solitary thing, a not‑sharing, although the feel of the earth, the taste of its produce gave meaning without words. But it had been Dan’s garden first. Now it was hers, hers alone. The squash and radishes. The turnips. Little by little she had replaced his vegetables with hers. With her own loving hands.

The afternoon sunshine softened. The breeze was cooler, and though she might have been tempted to stay here a while, time pressed into a thing solid and heavy inside her. She moved away from the garden and went to the front of the house.

She collected the washing, laying aside the mending carefully so that it would not spill from the sideboard. She mentally ticked off each chore as she methodically began with the next one. At eight, the last of the sewing done, she pushed away from her machine, turned off its light, and stretched up, up to the ceiling, wiggling her fingers. She smoothed back her hair with both hands and stood listening to the night sounds.

She waited. Then after the minutes were tolled by the grandfather clock, she walked over to the radio and flipped on the dial. Music she did not recognize filled the hollow space of her living room. She left it to go into the kitchen and heat tea water. If she listened hard and didn’t clack the spoon, she could barely catch a strain or two of “When My Heart Was Young.”

She thought again of Rodger, when he had learned to box, her own unconditional faith in Big Red, Sam, and John.

Ada massaged the furrows in her forehead. “Damn this small town,” she whispered as hard as she could to dispel some of her bitterness, “May God give us the children to free us!”

There hadn’t been any time to explain things to Rodger about Big Red, Dee and Katie Simmons, the flight from the KKK. She had so much to tell him and so much she wanted to hear from him the night of the burning house.

Ada had had her secrets from Rodger. Hadn’t they all? Each one of them locked away some part of themselves. The day caught up with her. She turned off the radio. The echoes from the house and outside blended and Ada stood quite still and waited for the quiet to come back.

She was tired, but her thoughts, each like a painted carrousel pony, whirled around and around, images at once distinct, then blurred. She felt herself the spectator turned unwilling participant, but a sense of release came over her. Tears stung her eyes, recalling Sam darting about between her and Lucy.

Her involvement with Rodger had led her further and further away from the safety of her solitude. Day by day, birthdays and Christmases and special events marked the time, stopping it in segments of meanings. She could not close her eyes to what was, nor could she, admitting it finally, deny that odd mixed feeling of regret and happiness, that specialness of love lost and regained, was binding her tighter and tighter to Rodger. Now, at fifty‑six, where there had never been a future with John, and only moments with Sam, she could now have one with Rodger, Adele and the baby. They would be a continuation of her life, like it always had been.

“Habits,” she snorted out loud to hear her own voice, “I am bound to this earth by my habits.”

She carried her tea outside, again to stand beside her garden, and weep just a little for the loss of her beloved. Sam had substituted for John, her first, real love. And through him, with him, and by him, she had also loved Rodger. And that second love was the most precious.

The velvet black night, speckled with stars, wrapped its warmth around her. She stared intently at heaven until she saw a falling star.

“For you, Sam,” she whispered, “may your wings never fail you.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Bully Dogs Chapter 3: Win, Lose, or Draw

It rained most of the morning, until around one o’clock. Although the sky was overcast, there was no wind, and it wasn’t too cold for the ten of us that showed up. Uncle Ryan let us wash his car first, and then came over with his wallet open.

“How much?” he asked.

I hadn’t thought of the price, yet. “Two dollars?”

He looked over his car where Tina was still wiping off the headlights. “Fair enough. Do you…girls have a sign made up?”

I hadn’t thought of that, either. “No,” I said, looking helplessly at Annie. Marcy groaned. I turned around and blasted her. “Well, you didn’t think of it, either!”

Before a real honest-to-goodness fight got under way, Uncle Ryan spoke up. “Look, I’ve got some white cardboard boxes you could break down and black felt markers to write with—just make your sign bold and clever. One or two of you should stand on the sidewalk and wave customers in.”

Marcy and Sue volunteered, which suited the rest of us just fine. They certainly had the mouths for it. To be honest, they also had the spunk to wave and shout and kid around with people.

We worked like dogs all day until six that night, but made only fifty dollars. We needed at least seventy. We were all standing around, down in the dumps, when my mom drove up.

“Can I get my car washed?” She looked all happy and excited. “Nice weather for a car wash, huh?”

I threw down my rag and started collecting our stuff. “Yeah, only not enough people wanted their cars washed today. We didn’t make enough money.” The others were getting ready to go, too.

Uncle Ryan walked over, tossing my mom a package with windshield wipers in it. “Not a bad turnout, don’t you think?”

“They didn’t make their quota,” my mom said softly, tapping the box against the dashboard.

“Well,” Uncle Ryan turned around and, with a sweeping motion of his arm, addressed us, “why don’t you do it again tomorrow? The weatherman says it’s going to be a sunny day. I don’t mind if you…girls come back.”

Half of us were willing; half not. So six of us agreed to come Sunday at noon and hustle ten cars to wash.

Things went a lot smoother without Marcy and Sue. Ursala took the duty of walking the sign up and down the sidewalk, like an old-time town crier proclaiming a big event. We had twelve cars in four hours, mostly parents that hadn’t come yesterday.

“We did it!” I shouted as I handed my mom the seventy-four dollars. “With four dollars to spare.”

The six of us gave each other the high-five victory hand-slap and cheered, “Four, six, eight. Aren’t WE great!” It even felt like we were a team.

“What are you going to do with the extra four dollars?” my mom asked in her most motherly, practical voice.

“Buy an extra-large pizza at the end of the season party!” chimed Rachel, which we all agreed to with enthusiasm.

“Umm,” my mom stalled in her ‘let’s be reasonable’ way, “maybe add it to the money collected at the end of the season for the coach’s present?”

It was hard to argue with her logic, so I said, “Okay, keep it and buy Miss Ford something really neat.”

So everything started off pretty good. Practices were set up for Tuesday and Thursday evenings, but only ten girls made it for the team. That left us with four substitutes per game, if every girl showed.

Miss Ford made us run two laps around the court before we even got started, then had us volley the ball to one another to get down the correct way to return the ball over the net. We had a practice session with the parents one night, and boy, did they have some bad habits! My mom was the worst of the lot, too, stepping out of the server’s box every time. Miss Ford said she’d have to take one whole practice time to correct our return serves. Probably the next time we played our parents, if Miss Ford lets us, we would wax them if they played by the rules.

The week went by fast, and things were looking good, for a change. The bully dogs were out only one morning, and I was far enough down the street that they missed seeing me, so I made it to school without being hassled. Once at school, though, it was a different matter.

As I said, the playground is like a barnyard, and the sixth-grade boys were just like pigs. They grabbed the soccer balls before any of us girls could get to them, and the only game they let us in on was kickball, always their rules, of course, which meant they won all the time. Usually I didn’t play because the rules changed in mid-game, especially if it looked as if the girls were going to score.

Marcy, Sue, Ursala, Tina, Rachel, and Annie liked to get out there and run up and down, squealing as if they were having all the fun in the world losing at the boys’ game. Most times I stood by the gate and watched, not saying much, if anything.

“Hey, Marcy, why don’t ya get Franny to play on your team? She could stand in front of the goal and block the ball with her big head!” Brian yelled loud enough so everyone for miles could hear.

He should talk; he was so overweight. I sneered at him in disgust, thinking that he looked just like a big hog out there, rooting in the field. “Brian, you’re a porker,” I muttered, not caring that he couldn’t hear me.

The new kid in seventh grade, Dean, came over. He was nice but stuttered a bit, and the guys gave him a bad time about it. “Hey, Fr…Fran, want... to shoot some baskets?”

“Sure, but just a couple, okay, Dean?” I liked Dean’s quiet way of asking me, and he didn’t go on and on, boring me with a lot of talk about himself or stuff I could’ve cared less about.

As I walked over to the basketball court with him, Brian the Porker snorted, then bellowed, “Hey, lookit! Fanny and D-D-Dean! A match made in heaven!”

I got the ball on the rebound but missed the basket. Dean’s face was all flushed, but neither one of us said anything. I didn’t know what Dean was thinking, but I wished I’d had a good comeback. Instead, I just kept trying to get the darn ball in the basket.

“Want to practice again tomorrow, Fran?” Dean bounced the ball from hand to hand.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

I glanced back at the playfield and caught the last play, just as the bell rang to go in. Steve’s kick went wild, shooting out the gate, right towards the parking lot. “Stop it, Franny!” he ordered, running towards me.

Maybe he could just stop it with his mouth; I wasn’t going to move a muscle. He pushed me, hard, and I fell down, my pants all muddy along the side.

Back in class, Mrs. Hammershaw asked me why I was crying. “I’m not, something’s in my eye,” I mumbled.

“Steve pushed Fran down on the playground, Mrs. Hammershaw.” Tina pointed to Steve who looked madder than ever.

“It’s all right, really,” I said, trying to get to my seat without another big scene.

“No, it is not!” exclaimed Mrs. Hammershaw. “Steve, I wish to have a conference with you.”

The room got real quiet, except you could almost hear everyone’s thoughts about Steve, who never got into trouble, the one-and-only hotshot in soccer, basketball, and baseball and an A student, and my putting him on the bad side of the teacher. I wished it had been the bully dogs after me, instead.

Steve had to write me a note of apology, only he made sure to add a part about it being my fault that he had to shove me out of his way to get to the ball that I wouldn’t stop. I jammed the note inside my trapper-keeper with all the other papers and left it at that.

And wouldn’t you know it? Steve and I tied the last round of the spelling bee. I had to hand it to him, though, he got some pretty tough words—“synonym” and “self-explanatory”—but I got lucky and spelled “pseudonym” correctly. Our rematch would be the spelling bee with the seventh-graders tomorrow.

In the bathroom during the last morning recess, I overheard Sue talking to Rachel. “I hope she doesn’t make it. Steve deserves to win more than she does.”

I didn’t linger washing my hands long enough to hear what Rachel replied, but I could guess it wouldn’t have made me feel any better. I didn’t want to tell them, but they were wrong. I don’t think that you deserve to win because you’re liked but because you’ve done the best. And if you lose, no big deal; you can try again.

I did feel a lot better after acing a math test, but it seemed the day had been too long. I checked what I had written down on my homework-to-do pad and realized I’d left out some of the assignments that were up on the board. That meant I still had to do religion and science, as well as English. My day was shot, what with piano lesson and volleyball practice that night. If I stayed in for last recess, I could finish my English and I’d have at least a little reading time before lights-out.

Which worked out fine because I had the feeling I wasn’t welcomed out at the barnyard, anyway. I also wasn’t much inclined to talk to the playground supervisor, our principal, Mrs. Aster. Her favorite subject was religious principles and how they applied to each individual’s life. She used a lot of words, but it seemed she didn’t make a lot of sense.

“Now, do I have your attention?” she’d always start off a lecture. “Can anyone tell me how the Golden Rule applies to our everyday lives?”

Usually someone in the seventh or eighth grade would spout something meaningful with a straight face, and you’d get the feeling that Mrs. Aster was going to reach out and pat that person on the head. Sure, every one of us could give an example, but I’m willing to bet none of us thought twice about it when Mrs. Aster left the room. And if there were a few minutes before Mrs. Hammershaw came to lead us back to our room, you can bet there was a lot of joking about what “do unto others” really meant in our daily lives. Mrs. Aster should’ve heard some of the things the kids said at recess when no adult was around. Boy, would she have gotten an earful of “meaningful dialogue.”

The only thing I hated, no, disliked (I reserved hate only for certain people), more than recess was singing with Mr. Breen every Thursday at two o’clock. He was a fussy little man in a wrinkled suit, white shirt, and out-of-date tie, who waved his arms a lot and urged the girls to sing without breaking for a breath and yelled at the boys to pay attention. The songs were all too high for comfort, to sing or listen to, but we had to give an hour each week toward “music appreciation.” I couldn’t tell you how much I appreciated it being over at three.

I was glad my mom was waiting to take me to my piano lesson and all I had to do was walk across the parking lot to the car. One less potential run-in with the bully dogs. I liked going to Mrs. Nieman’s house for my forty-five minute lesson because it counted as practice time and she was a cheerful type of person that smiled a lot. Not that she didn’t come down on me like a ton of bricks when I hadn’t completed all my music theory or I’d skipped an assignment! But mostly we had a pleasant enough session. If there was a minute or two to spare before my mom came, Mrs. Nieman would tell me some interesting historical facts about musicians and composers that I liked. I always had a question for her, and sometimes she gave me a book I could take home to read. Mom would give me five minutes off of practice time for reading about music, so I’d try to borrow the bigger books.

“So, how’d it go today?” my mom asked for the thirteenth time already that afternoon.

“Fine, wonderful, great, good,” I replied, then looked quickly to see if I’d overdone it and annoyed her. “I aced my math test.”

“How was the spelling bee?” she said, with a little note of hope in her voice.

“Oh, it’s a draw. Our rematch will be in the next round with the seventh graders. Then all-school, inter-school, city, and regional.”

“You seem pretty confident that you can do it.” She pulled into McDonald’s drive-thru and asked, “Are you thirsty?”

“Yeah! You bet!” I laughed because it was a joke between us. She says that the first thing I say when I get into the car is “I’m thirsty,” but I hadn’t said it that day, and that made it even funnier. I figured she’d probably say “Gotcha.”

“Gotcha.” Then she laughed, and I laughed even harder.

“Can I have a medium coke?” I knew she’d be surprised I wasn’t asking for a large one. “And fries?” She was in a pretty good mood and maybe she’d go for the extra inch she always accuses me of taking.

“Oh, all right.” She gave me that ‘I’m indulging you’ look. “I guess it won’t hurt this time.”

“Hey, since we have volleyball practice at seven, can I have dinner here?” I knew I was pushing it, but I went for the off-chance she’d say yes.

She ordered fries and a medium coke. “No,” she said a bit louder than necessary, I thought, “we’re having beef stew tonight.”

“All right, my favorite! With those muffins, too?” I poked the straw into the lid, real careful so the drink didn’t squirt out.

“Yes, ma’am.” Mom smiled and pointed at a rainbow over the Nike-shoe billboard. “We should go look for the proverbial pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, happy enough with the way the day was turning out, after all. Little did I expect what was going to happen at volleyball later on.