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Hazel, age four, crouches on a padded platform in the corner of the Monkey Room. The Monkey Room is an inside playground, built for days like today, when New Orleans dips to a brisk twenty-nine degrees and no one, kids included, knows what to do with themselves. Cushioned floors and plastic tunnels shape a risen, netted maze through which frenzied children scurry. Outside the maze, a stretch of dull carpet spreads under clustered plastic lawn furniture, where parents sit. The place is a shrill cacophony, voices underscored with a chorus of naked knees squeaking on easily sanitizable vinyl. (Knees, but not feet; socks are required in the Monkey Room, any breach of this rule quite serious, an offense for which severe-looking women will ask you and your children to leave). Everything here is bright, the gradation of colors identical and blunt, the simplest and most boring versions of themselves. I imagine their official marketing names alliterative, complete with exclamation: Ruby Red! PlayDay Purple! Yahoo Yellow!
A paradox we require from the world of children: that it be simple, bold, and yet easily understood across a wide range of ages. Further, perhaps more important: that it hold a child’s attention for however long we hope to shirk the chore ourselves.
And what a squandering! Eyes upturned, noodle arms flung to encircle the trunk of our legs; how is it they default to be so interested in us? And why are we not more compelled to examine the phenomena? Too quickly we acclimate to the rare as normal and quicker still, the children are gone, hurrying after whatever new interest flashes by, the opportunity to examine their generosity lost as easily as it was lent in the first place.
Hazel, age four, is a rugged girl, pretty and also durable. She is not my child but my charge, although people do mistake us for relation. “Oh,” I say, half-flattered, “she’s not mine.” I explain this to strangers, mostly mothers, mostly at playgrounds and libraries, and also here, at the Monkey Room. In a decade and a half of nannying, only recently has this explanation become necessary. Even when I started with Hazel, three years ago, the assumption of motherhood was rare.
I do think about it. Nearing thirty, it is impossible not to. My answer to the question (unavoidable as the thinking) of “children?” is unclear. It doesn’t vacillate; I don’t feel one way one day and another the next. I am unsure of how I feel, and so I do not answer. The hesitation stems from a basic lack of understanding, which matters because I, like any goodly middle-class intellectual, make decisions by rigorous over-thought and extensive intellectual parsing.
Certainty, or near certainty, is required for a decision of this magnitude, and might be achieved only by careful exam. I like to examine. I like to debate. I like to dissect, cleaving the whole down to its quark-level recipe, elucidating the elemental nature of the thing so as to label it, pin it to the specimen board, and render it ready for the presenting theater. So far, despite several attempts, motherhood remains a shrouded whole. I am reserving judgment. I am a firm maybe.
Hazel scoots over on her perch. Another girl, thin and blonde, climbs up to join her.
“I’m Hazel,” Hazel says.
“I’m Abby,” the other girl says.
“Do you want to be my friend?” Hazel asks.
“Okay,” Abby says.
And they scurry, flailing, an alliance formed with ease, Hazel chasing Abby toward the top of the biggest slide.
The girl wears quickly on her new friend. Besides her durability, Hazel, age four, is also very smart, and rarely shy, and while adults find this combination charming, even oddly relatable, it is sometimes difficult for other children. Gradually, Abby stops answering Hazel’s questions, or turning when she calls, or responding in any way at all to Hazel’s prompting. I see it, even as Hazel does not.
A small crowd of tittering blonde women see it too. The one in the middle, Abby’s mother I think, wears a loose-knit pink shawl with a thin line of tinsel woven through the stitch. Given the right angle, she appears to shimmer. Abby runs back to her periodically for snacks, for water. These women are not nannies. These women, were I to ask them, would not agree so readily to be my friend, although probably no adult would. We don’t do that, as adults. I wonder when Abby’s mother will first teach her this, the potential danger in such easy commitment.
The girls come together again in the middle of the open carpet. “I go to Newbrook,” Hazel says. “Where do you go?”
Abby says nothing, starts to climb.
Like most children I’ve cared for, Hazel, age four, is a child of phases. The most prominent currently is one of declaration, in which Hazel proclaims herself, for things, against things, of things, within things. Many other phases run parallel.
(The Naming Phase: every imaginary name she picks—for dolls, make-believe identities, drawn characters—has two aspects: first, it’s female, and second, it is unnecessarily complicated, embellished, almost recognizable as a standard canon but for the flourishes: Alississa, Melaniara, Celandra).
(The Regulatory Phase: when her little sister Edna, age two, does anything out of the ordinary, Hazel parrots an adult enforcement of the rules, telling Edna “No!” with a firm volume and then explaining why it is we cannot do whatever Edna is doing. I try to assure Hazel that enforcement is not her job, and then, upon Edna’s eruption into tears at whatever transgression she now understands she has committed, I try to reassure the younger child that as much as the job is not Hazel’s, so her authority holds no sway. This exchange is loud, and tearful, and usually takes about ten minutes).
(The Story Phase: Hazel asks every night, on the nights I put her to bed, for a story, and not a song as had been our practice. Most often, she specifies: “Tell me a story about when you were a little girl.” I’ve heard children ask this of their parents as long as I have been a nanny, but Hazel is the first child to ever ask it of me. She listens, blanket balled in her fist, head lolling on the pillow, a girl the same age as the me I speak of in the tale, rapt and dozing as I tell it).
Hazel’s declarative phase is comprised of a simple dichotomy: what she is, and what she is not. It’s a natural development, children aligning themselves with categories as they begin to understand those categories as reflective, as conceptual to who they are (school, home, friend group, city). With blind enthusiasm, Hazel declares “Newbrook!” when we see her elementary school, or “Home!” when we pull up the driveway, or “New Orleans!” when we pass anything with a fleur-de-lis on it, although I’ll grant that this last might present more dimly if we lived someplace less inculcated with civic pride.
Too, there are subtler groupings. Often in the car, we listen to music. A Raffi song will start to play, and Hazel will reach for Edna across the divide between car seats.
“Hold my hand if you don’t like baby music!” she’ll say.
Whether Edna understands or not I don’t know, but the result is the same: the barely-not-baby babbling along to “Mr. Golden Sun” or “Down By the Bay,” the almost-kindergartner straining for her younger sister, desperate for companionship in her opinions. I elect to remain neutral, letting the song play through. Hazel’s pouting disappears at the start of the next track, Katy Perry’s “Roar” or The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” or The Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World.” These, to be sure: big-girl music.
This phenomenon—the assignation of self-based on synecdochical characteristics—is not unique to Hazel, nor new to me, nor new really to anyone. Among the earliest examples of narrative we have (and it is narrative; although self-imposed and self-subjected, the creation of identity is, at its core, the story we make of ourselves), this detail-based, categorical scaffolding is widespread, so much so that it merits its own adjectival phrase. From Hector, breaker-of-horses, to Achilles, swift-of-feet, to Agamemnon, ruler-of-men, the Homeric epithet relies on characterization by prominent detail, the most important aspects of each player repeated, associated, assigned. First read as descriptors, these taglines can also stray into the patronymic, and when they do, prove forceful enough to remain even with immediate evidence to the contrary. Swift-footed Achilles is still “swift-footed” even when he’s walking; Hector is himself even when there’s no horse in sight.
A name: what you are even when you are actively not.
Bards used these epithets not only as a signifiers to remind the audience who was who, but for prompting themselves, as anaphora, as mnemonic device, a literal tool by which to lever us into the story where and when we are meant to appear. The epithet’s power expands, then, not unlike that of a modern dictionary, albeit without a constant and institutionalized evaluation.
First descriptive; second, definitional; third, a kind of road map, so deeply entwined with who we are that it speaks not only to our qualities, but to the trajectory of our plot.
Prudence, then, in the initial choosing. An inclination for caution, a tendency toward dissection, all warranted when it comes to what words might appraise us. These details, though small, could be our makeup for a long time.
I started working for Hazel’s family when she was one. Edna did not exist yet. Then, they lived on the third story of a New Orleans Victorian. Hazel was a bashful child only when we first met, toddling across the carpet in the empty living room. The family had hardly moved in, just arrived from Brooklyn. Her shyness lasted a full minute, and then we were tumbling into the next room, touching the frame of the door like it was a new mystery, which of course it was. She walked, I crawled, equal speeds. Her parents cancelled the rest of the interviews they’d set up for the week and hired me on the spot.
My duties were simple. I picked up Hazel from preschool. I cooked lunch, sometimes dinner. On date nights, I shepherded the bedtime routine, reading stories from thick, unyielding cardboard books built to withstand early childhood. We would rock together, Hazel splayed belly-down on my chest, evening fading through the twisted limbs of the four-story oak outside her window.
Now, we do bedtime in their restored nineteenth-century great-hall house (Hazel’s father is in real estate). Her room is new, the whole house essentially new, built inside the skeleton of something old. The floors are a gray-washed hardwood. The rocking chair is in Edna’s room now, who, after we are done reading a book all together, goes down first. Hazel and I lie together in her twin bed, and talk, and sing, and stare up at the spinning glow-in-the-dark spirals that hang from her ceiling.
To state the obvious, Hazel is no longer bashful. She is, at times, as her mother puts it, apoplectic. Prone to tantrums, she cries fierce and heavy, limbs thrashing, mouth turned softly down at the sides like a wilting rubber band. Often on weekends, when I sit for date night, I will arrive mid-tantrum. Hazel’s mother will warn me, with an eye roll or some guttural exasperation: they’ve tried everything; there’s no taming her; it’s been hours. To this, I nod and express empathetic understanding. I do know it’s hard. It’s hard for me also, I’m sure differently. A squalling child is easy for no person. But there is something else in these moments. What I do not say, of course there’s no stopping her. Hazel’s mother collects her purse, straps on teetering heels, slips out the door with Hazel’s father and into the glittering New Orleans evening. Of course she’s still going. She’s four.
If we grant that adulthood is, more or less, the development of reigns, i.e., if underneath our cultivated, massive superegos, we are not different people than the people we were when we were four, then Hazel and I are the same. I don’t know if this was the source of our initial affinity or the reason for my relative ease with her tantrums now. I do not know if some subconscious similarity is the reason why I was hired, or if her parents simply liked my manner, my background, the pedigree of my education. I do suspect, after some years together, that the comfort we have with each other is helped by the character of my girlhood, which might be best evidenced by the titles my own mother had along her shelf (Raising Your Spirited Daughter, The Strong Child, Emotions and the Young Self).
At bedtime, when Hazel and I are finished with our song or story, and after I have held her for a few minutes in the quiet, I stand up and cross the room. I ask her in a whisper, from the door, how wide she would like me to leave it open. She shows me with her hands. I ask the number of minutes she’d prefer we let elapse before I come back to check on her, and we bargain in whispers, Seven; How about ten? Eight; Okay, eight; You’ll check on me in eight minutes?
Yes, I’ll check on you in eight minutes.
I whisper that I hope she sleeps well. I whisper that I love her.
I cross the playroom and pick up whatever toys I can tidy without making noise. I turn out the light in the bathroom. As I do these things, there is a taste in my mouth, either some physiological flavor, or only imagined, a feeling so rich as to come almost to life in my head. It’s a tang, sweet and sharp, and persists even when I go downstairs, when I start the dishes or wipe down the counters, when I sit with a book and drift back into my adult world.
I don’t know what the taste is. I do not pretend to know.
Eight minutes. The stairs creak. They always do. The taste ebbs a bit, relegated to the back of my mouth, where saliva pools and my tongue anchors to my lower jaw, a node of instinctual function. I peak through the doorway. Nine times out of ten, she’s already asleep, and the times she is not, she usually does not see me, her hands above her in bed, held out like she is gauging the shape of herself, or imagining some dreamworld, sketching shapes in the air. I wonder if she isn’t there at all really but exists in these shadowed minutes on some imaginary plane, off in her own head, concocting fantastical stories to ferry herself from this world to the next.
Awake or asleep, she never knows I’ve come back. An admission, then: the checking-on is not for Hazel’s sake, although this much perhaps was obvious from the start.
There is one feature of Hazel’s declarative phase that I have never seen before in all my years of childcare. She sings the national anthem regularly; she is beside herself at the sight of an American flag; when anything (a food item, an article of clothing, a building) appears in red, white, and blue, it’s “Kailyn! Look! America colors!” She exclaims with abandon, with unbridled confidence, like she has discovered not just the colors but the country itself; and that this accomplishment—her very own Plymouth—is meaningful not just for her, but for the world.
Hazel, age four, is as possessed as a die-hard '90s boy-band fan by patriotism.
Given her other affinities, this enthusiasm for country might imply that she understands something of her international status: if she is American in America, then in the same way as other kids go to other schools (not Newbrook) and live in other cities (not New Orleans), so there exist people who are not American. I am relatively certain she does not understand this (while she has traveled internationally, I doubt it translates to a solid in-group/out-group concept), and whatever the patriotism’s source, it must be different than that of her other tribalisms. This said, Hazel is bright beyond her years, and I’d be naïve to assume a lack of understanding only because we’ve never discussed it. This is the same girl who, just yesterday, when faced with the word “vertebrate” and a question as to its meaning, turned her face up to me, the corner of her mouth smeared lightly with a spot of peanut butter, and said: “an animal with a spine or spinal column.” She bent her elbow behind her back, palming her own spine, and smiling, as if to be sure I understood it was no parrot trick. She knew I would wonder if her knowledge was real and was sure to safeguard against such assumptions.
What I mean to say is, it might very well be that Hazel, age four, understands exactly what it is to be American.
Perhaps the obsession is partly my own fault, having recently exposed her to a host of musicals, including West Side Story, in which her favorite song is the rightly titled “America.” Hazel’s fandom started before she knew Anita and the Sharks, but each (the song, her nationalism) seems to perpetuate the other. Every day she asks me to play it, and every day from my tinny iPhone speaker comes an argument set to the music, Anita espousing the miracles of the US—Cadillacs, washing machines, terrace apartments—while the Sharks protest racial injustice, overcrowding, lack of jobs. Although the musical is sixty years old (the story, of course, much older), its characterization holds up; whatever epithet we might choose for America, the details that spawned it are more or less the same as they were the fifties.
Hazel’s favorite line, which she looks to me to sing with her when it comes, is the chorus, an oft-repeated, rhythmic exclamation: I like to be in America! No matter if we are walking down the sidewalk, or sitting in the frozen yogurt shop, or riding in the car, Hazel insists we do something special on the word “America,” by which she means a physical motion, a twirl, a pose, a kick. “Choose quick! Choose quick!” she’ll tell Edna and I, scrambling for her own flourish, eyes wide and hands out, ready to mark the moment for her joyous and chorusing country.
Does she understand the thing for which she is cheering? In asking the question, what we are really asking is: does her intellect qualify her to lend support with such fervor? Except that we do not ask this question at all because Hazel, age four, is four, and when it comes to four-year-olds, understanding is no prerequisite for devotion.
Hazel chases Abby through the Monkey Room. Abby is fast, and the girls flirt ever-closer to the tipping point where the chaser becomes the chased. Hazel calls Abby’s name, has been calling it for some time now, is almost screaming it, although she’s accidentally added a G; why I don’t know, but the result is that Abby is now Gabby. It’s a different voice than the one Hazel uses to exclaim her allegiances, a more anxious tone, the word thrown ahead of her into the bright plastic twists as often as her pace will allow.
It is possible that (G)Abby doesn’t hear her. It is possible the “G” is confusing. I doubt either is true. Sure as one of the three blonde woman in the corner, whichever is (G)Abby’s mother, has modeled for (G)Abby, this method of ghosted ignorance, so too has Hazel learned that to be heard she must continue to shout, to repeat the name or phrase or question until whatever piece of the world she addresses—adult, child, animal—hears her, and answers. The conception that someone might choose not to answer does not occur to Hazel; if it does, it is so low on the list of possibilities that, despite having made chase for a solid fifteen minutes now, it has not yet been given so much as a passing consideration. Surely no one, particularly not this newly-minted friend, would choose such a thing. Surely it is a question of practical limitation. The world Hazel knows is not yet made up of people who elect, voluntarily, to ignore each other.
Often characterized as insanity (the same behavior repeated expecting different results), this pattern might just as easily define childhood. Hazel, age four, and her total and unyielding assurance that the world is at her beck: this is as much definitional to her existence as it is mystery to mine, the quality both cherished and envied, as are most aspects of childhood by adults. Her security stems from the same main trunk as her declarations, I think; in her world, she is agent and arbiter, dictionary and language practicum, both defining the scope of things and choosing her place in it. That this world is set in stone and also changeable is her magic, the magic of all childhoods, perhaps. Here she loves Raffi, here she does not; here the doll is named, the next day named again, the next day changed back to the first; Hazel, age four, ancient poet to her playthings. Each choice contradicts the last and is as grave, joyous, and secure as the next for the given day, hour, or minute in which she takes up its posture. Both her declarations and their certainty, evidence of a remarkable foundation: Hazel, age four, believes that the world is hers because it is.
This is perhaps as good an explanation of her phase as any, and puts to bed the more common question as to what is phase and what is solid, permanent character, what is epithet and what is patronymic. It might also explain the delicacy with which I am compelled to answer the question I know is coming, which it does when she finally stops, out of breath, pink in the face, hair curling and damp at her temples.
“Why doesn’t Gabby hear me?” she asks.
I crouch down and hold both her arms. I face her, the position we take with children when we have something to impart. I don’t correct the name.
“I think she does, H,” I say.
I watch her face fall. The tang blooms in my mouth, a sweep of feeling I can taste on the back of my tongue.
I still don’t understand what it is, even here in the bright Monkey Room, but when she drapes her arms around my neck and I scoop her up, and the weight of her and the weight of me are the same, I don’t have to. Perhaps this, more than our surface-level commonalities or her parents’ approval, has always been the reason my fascination with Hazel is so complete. Superego pulled gently aside, we are not different. I am only older. Tell me a story about when you were a little girl. If understanding is not required for devotion in the four-year-old, then neither is it required for me.
Homer too is redefined. It is not how often we called Achilles swift that makes him so, but rather the fact that he has been swift forever that prompts remarking in the first place. He is who he has been from the very beginning, language catching up to the real state of things, and not the other way around. As to the question of America, the signifiers are perhaps not yet so solid, details still mid-arc between the evidentiary and the indicative, plodding from the descriptive to the dictatorial. A patronymic in the making, perhaps, but certainly yet to find sure footing.
Which answers the question, finally, after thirty years, satisfies the intellectual dissection in the same gesture that renders it moot. Mine is not so much an imaginary future on which a verdict must be reached, but an inevitability spurred by what I have always felt. I take a turn, small, just a slight adjustment in the keel, but the course stretching ahead set now for deeper waters.
Do you want children?
Without thinking at all.
We get ready to leave the Monkey Room. We hand the severe woman at the counter the tag for the bin that holds our shoes. We dress. We pile into the car and the girls, pink from being too warm and then suddenly too cold, clamor for music. I put on “America,” probably for the hundredth time. Edna, spent, falls asleep despite the racket. When the song is over, I catch Hazel’s face in the rearview, large, green eyes fixed out the window.
“KK,” she says.
“HH,” I say back. Our regular exchange.
“Is Puerto Rico part of America?”
She is asking because, in the song, Puerto Rico is where Anita is from, declared as my heart’s devotion, then condemned, let it sink back in the ocean!
“Sort of,” I say.
I think about what is required. I think about a discussion of the concept of state, of voting, of representation, of colonization and the history of America, the country an oppressive and violent force.
“What’s the matter?” I say.
“I hate it when grown-ups say maybe,” she says. “It just means no.”
I nod. I get ready to explain that while usually she'd be right, this time Puerto Rico is squarely in the maybe category; that it's in between; that its place is unsure; that for once, adults mean what they say.
“H—” I start.
But Hazel, age four and not yet grown, interrupts.
“Can you put on ‘Roar’?” she asks, and in a blink, we are on the next thing.
Kailyn writes fiction and nonfiction in Oakland, California, her hometown by way of Oregon, Alaska, and New Orleans. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Brevity, The Master's Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Believer, and The Rumpus, among others. Kailyn has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Montana’s Open AIR Residency, the Ucross Foundation, and the Mendocino Coast Writers' Conference. When not writing, Kailyn likes a good camping trip.
I learned to dance by standing
on my mother’s feet, pretending
that our kitchen was the smoke-
filled Broken Spoke. The ceiling
was as low. The dish soap
and Diet Coke played forty-two
with coupons for their dominoes.
They stopped to watch us lope
across the brick to London
Homesick Blues. My fingers clung
onto her beltloops when she spun
me, set me down and sung
the line that taught my legs to match:
step-together, step-touch, step-back.
I outgrew my boots. My partner
dropped me off at homecoming,
a whole, swollen gymnasium
of children playing mothers,
trying to tell each other’s
bodies what to do. The lights
returned their childhood, half-
turned. I waited by the punch
alone. She picked me up
and brought me home.
Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Josh Dugat teaches, fishes, and two-steps in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, alongside his wife and son.
The little girl and boy were screaming.
Not the bad screaming.
Not Mia’s screaming.
Lucretia stood in the outer schoolyard, looking through the fence that separated her from the scene of the crime she had created two months prior. Of all the kids packed into the limited pen designated for kindergarten students, her eyes and ears couldn’t help but track the running, laughing— For now, she thought—screaming little girl and boy, engaged in the age-old interplay: the fluttering of the little girl’s long hair, the little boy’s outstretched hand, the former barely outrunning the latter, whether by choice or biology; laughing, screaming, most times out of exhilaration, sometimes because a primitive thought told her she was in genuine danger. The way the invisibly tethered pair navigated the other children, who were merely sitting ducks oblivious to the fast-paced game of tandem sparrows; the little boy finding a latent gear, accelerating, reaching with a clawed hand, closer, closer, closer. The little girl abruptly turning to avoid his fingers, the chase slowing down—this time—to recover for an encore or dying altogether; the dangerous game saved for something as distant as another day, or as close as the next recess.
And outside of this customary exchange, outside of this playground within a playground, Lucretia felt relief, for the little girl and boy had yet again successfully avoided recreating the history that had taken place in there.
She and Mia’s history.
A history she had forgotten until last week.
Lucretia had looked forward to the first day of school. Her mother had dropped her off at the side of the building, wished her good luck on her first day of school, and drove away to the job that paid their rent. Mia’s mother, on the other hand...well, if she had work, she had clearly called in sick so as to protect her daughter from Lucretia.
It was in the gymnasium, where the buzzing student body waited to be assigned their new teachers, that Lucretia had felt the summer’s sunburns in her gut, the summer’s scraped knees all over her body, for she had seen for the first time how and in what condition Mia had spent her summer—thanks to that single moment in June.
Thanks to Lucretia.
The little girl and boy were screaming again. Not the bad screaming.
Not Mia’s screaming. Not yet, Lucretia thought.
She looked away from the potential violence and focused on the one obstacle she would need to overcome if now was indeed the time to do what she hadn’t any real courage to do. But when the obsidian eyes of Ms. Jackson, perched atop the steps leading to Lucretia’s assigned door, met hers, she panicked, resorting to blindly surveying the vast schoolyard available to her.
She knew her new world by heart: the field that was home to two continental versions of football, haloed by quintuplet tracks, faded baseball diamond, fully-loaded play area—just some of the perks of becoming a full-day student in the first grade.
The perks, however, did nothing to perk her up.
Everyone was out here, relishing their twenty minutes outside the stifling classrooms, trying to capture as much of the lingering dog days as possible. Everyone who stole glances of Mia, who never saw, but must have felt the judging eyes. Everyone who gossiped, but pretended otherwise, as if the school was ripe with other Mias.
Everyone was out here. Except Mia.
Lucretia could bear the Mia-less vista no longer. Heavy guilt shepherded her heavy legs toward Ms. Jackson. She could have claimed to have felt ill—she was, after all, sick with nerves—but opted for a watered-down lie that the hateful teacher would likely deny. “Can I get a drink, Ms. Jackson?” Her voice cracked, supporting her cause.
Ms. Jackson smiled, opened the door, and held it for the stunned Lucretia. She eyed the teacher as she crossed the threshold. The woman indeed appeared to be the same Ms. Jackson who had cradled and cooed the wailing Mia on that day in June, the same Ms. Jackson who glared and yelled at the culpable Lucretia. Doesn’t she remember me? Lucretia mused. Doesn’t she remember what I did?
The hard handrail felt like a slippery serpent of electric nerves. With legs of quicksand, she began the long ascent. She caught up to her pounding heart upon reaching the second-floor landing. There, the pair of heavy doors guarded against her, protecting whom she sought. But they were no match for a mousy thumb pressing the latch.
The click of the stairwell door did nothing to interrupt the hushed voices wafting over to her from the opposite side of the hallway. While the volume of the conversation rose with every step toward the only open door, specific words refused to clarify themselves. Still, Lucretia discerned two voices: one she knew, but scarcely heard during class; the other could have belonged to either relief or dread, for Mia’s mother was prone to classroom visits between the usual drop-offs and pick-ups—which contributed to the list of gossip topics.
Please be Mrs. Atwood, she thought.
Lucretia reached the door and listened for whether or not she would abort her mission. When her heart, thudding in her ears, skipped a beat, she heard not dread, but relief—Mrs. Atwood!—and turned the corner just as another thought occurred to her: Mia’s mother could still be in there, not talking.
Two pairs of eyes looked up at her from their respective desks. One pair looked back down just as quickly. The other pair held her gaze. “Hey, Lucretia.” There was a tinge of surprise in Mrs. Atwood’s voice. Surprise turned to concern. “You okay?”
Lucretia knew she looked as dishevelled and antsy and nauseous as she felt. “Yeah,” she croaked. “Just...” She couldn’t lie about needing a drink; she had passed the fountains on her way over.
“Too hot outside?” Mrs. Atwood offered.
“Yeah,” Lucretia exhaled, relieved for the out.
“Well, you can take your seat if you like. Recess is almost over, anyway. Speaking of...” Mrs. Atwood rose from her desk. “Girls, I’ll be right back. Gotta use the ladies’ room.” She turned to the damaged thing at the far end of the second-last row, peeling a tangerine. “We’ll talk some more about it later, okay, Mia?”
Lucretia wondered if Mrs. Atwood saw the pain, suffering, and sadness that animated Mia’s barely nodding head. She wondered if Mrs. Atwood knew that she was responsible for those emotions. Of course, she does, Lucretia reminded herself. Mia and her mother and Ms. Jackson for sure told her what I did.
Mrs. Atwood flashed Lucretia a smile on her way out. Victim and criminal were alone.
Lucretia remained at the door. Staring at Mia, like the other kids. Talking about her, like the other kids, except her conscience was the mouth, tongue-tied, inarticulate. Her meagre vocabulary boiled down to a single thought: Just do it, chicken!
Paring herself from the linoleum, Lucretia shuffled toward the row of desks in a wide arc, simultaneously avoiding and gravitating toward the back row. Her eyes never left Mia, who busied herself with her tangerine. As she drew reluctantly closer, Lucretia was afforded a profile view of the baseball cap—a major topic of gossip—that never left Mia’s head. Having reached the beginning of the back row, she then trudged the never-ending trudge toward her ill-placed desk at the very end.
Each timid step brought her closer to Mia.
Each fearful step brought her closer to the damned baseball cap... and what it hid.
Each outright terrified step packed more and more of Mia’s citrusy snack into her nose.
Standing behind her chair, which sat behind her desk, which sat behind Mia, Lucretia wondered why Mia’s mother—who had witnessed the unfortunate seating plan during several of her visits—allowed the criminal so close to her daughter.
Lucretia heard Mia’s chewing slow, saw her back stiffen, growing uncomfortably aware of Lucretia’s presence, and the lack of chair legs scraping against the floor.
Chicken! Chicken! CHICKEN!
She collapsed, rather than sat in, her poorly assigned seat, and couldn’t help but fall into the week-long habit of studying the bit of naked scalp visible under the rim of Mia’s baseball cap. She memorized the bony ridges, the shallow pockets, the pronounced point where the skull met the spine, the precise number of pink and red bumps. She knew each of Mia’s five beauty-marks intimately, and no matter how many times her eyes played with them, she couldn’t settle upon a shape, pattern, or design. She believed that if the school day were longer, she would finally be able to count each terribly short bristle of thin hair.
A fresh burst of tangerine invaded Lucretia’s nose. The odor divided itself: southbound, to her stomach, where it mixed with and churned breakfast; northbound, to the mysterious region of the brain where scent converted to imagery. There, she saw that bright June day, not too dissimilar from the little girl and boy outside. Did he catch her? she wondered. Is she crying?
Chicken! that other part of her taunted.
What if she doesn’t believe me? Chicken!
What if she screams and cries again? Chicken!
What if she hits me? CHICKEN!
Another burst of tangerine perspiration. This time, Lucretia didn’t see the little girl and boy, but another film entirely: the claustrophobic kindergarten playground, Mia clutching the back of her head, bawling in Ms. Jackson’s arms; Lucretia trying her best not to join in on the bawling but failing, trying to give back the long brunette strands of hair wrapped around her stubby fingers; Mia blaring her refusal; Lucretia covering her blubbering face, her snotty nose detecting something flowery, something fruity.
Yet another surge of Mia’s tangerine, and Lucretia realized that Mia’s envied, rope-like hair had been washed in tangerine-scented shampoo that day in June.
“I’m sorry.” Lucretia craved to be heard, perhaps even to be forgiven, and yet she didn’t understand why Mia was turning to face her.
“For what?” Mia asked.
Lucretia couldn’t believe the question more than the fact Mia was actually talking to her. Did she forget, too? Like Ms. Jackson? Does her mom remember?
Mia started to turn away.
The tangerine had completely assimilated with Lucretia’s stomach contents, and out came a vomit of sorts: “I’m sorry for pulling your hair and for making you cry and for making all your hair fall out of your head and eyebrows and everyone talking about you and looking at you and not playing with you and making you not want to go outside and play....” As she purged, she saw the most peculiar thing: a smile. Mia had never looked so pretty. Lucretia thought Mia had been pretty on their last day as kindergartners, when she had asked if she’d like to play tag, but this was...
Lucretia sealed her spewing. She noted a sliver of pale orange flesh stuck between Mia’s big teeth, somehow enhancing her beautiful smile.
“You didn’t pull all my hair out, Luke,” Mia said, her voice tickled by a suppressed laugh. Lucretia—“Luke” to her only friend, Mia—saw two of the girls before her. Both Mias lost their beautiful smiles as they took Lucretia’s hand, and asked her why she was crying.
“I thought I....” Tears drowned the thought. “I thought I pulled out all your hair when we played tag that time.”
“No,” Mia said, beautiful smile nowhere on her lips. “I was sick.”
“Sick? Like a cold?” Lucretia sniffled as if she bore the illness.
“I had leukemia,” Mia said, the word somewhat shaky on her tongue.
Lucretia tasted the foreign word. “Lu-Luke-Mia?” She beamed. “Luke-Mia? Like our names?”
Mia smiled another one of her rainbows, tangerine pulp and all. “I never thought of that.”
“Leukemia,” Mia corrected. “It’s a bad sickness, but I don’t got it anymore because the doctor gave me medicine, but the medicine makes your hair fall out. My mom is going to come to class one day soon and help me and Mrs. Atwood tell everyone about it.”
On the one hand, Lucretia was relieved to be off the hook. On the other, she now wished she had been the cause of Mia’s hair loss. “Is that why you don’t want to go outside?” The regret of the inquiry came as swiftly as Mia’s radiant smile faded.
“I want to, but I can’t do too much stuff, like running. I don’t like the way the other kids look at me and stuff.” Now it was Lucretia’s turn to wipe her duplicate self from Mia’s brimming eyes.
The school bell rang, setting off an uproar outside. Mrs. Atwood returned as if on cue.
“You girls okay?” She hadn’t noticed the swollen eyes.
They smiled. “Mia, all good?” An extra smile from Mia.
Once again, Lucretia was gifted with the back of Mia’s baseball-capped head, the way she would remain until the glancing and gossiping kids were summoned outside for more play. She leaned forward and whispered each word louder than the next, for the rowdiness was racing up the steps.
“If you want, I can play with you outside next recess.” She saw the beauty-marks closest to each of Mia’s ears rise ever so slightly, and she knew her friend was smiling.
And though the children were screaming in the hallway—not the bad kind of screaming;
Not Mia’s screaming—Lucretia caught Mia’s whisper: “Maybe we can play tag.”
Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi has spent a decade penning award-winning short- and feature-length screenplays, while working as a full-time artisan baker. His prose work explores the trials and tribulations of ordinary people, slice-of-life examinations anchored in real and surreal settings. His short stories have appeared in over a dozen literary journals.
Si toda la tarde fuera
como un gran pájaro, ¡cuántas
duras flechas lanzaría
para cerrarle las alas!
Hora redonda y oscura
que me pesa en las pestañas.
Dolor de viejo lucero
detenido en mi garganta.
Ya debieran las estrellas
asomarse a mi ventana
y abrirse lentos los pasos
por la calle solitaria.
¡Con qué trabajo tan grande
deja la luz a Granada!
Se enreda entre los cipreses
o se esconde bajo el agua.
¡Y esta noche que no llega!
¡Noche temida y soñada;
que me hieres ya de lejos
con larguísimas espadas!
If all the afternoon were like
a giant bird, how many
sturdy arrows would I loose
to lay it low!
What hour round and dark
weighs heavy on my hem?
What pangs of Venus, heaven-bound,
stick in my throat of dust.
Already should the stars
be streaming through my pane
to light the lonely way
for steps approaching in the dark.
With what an effort does
the daylight drench the sky!
Granada’s cypresses are soaked
by mere reflecting pools.
This night that will not come!
Night feared and fantasized,
you’re piercing me already with
unbending shafts of light!
Dormir tranquilamente, niños míos,
mientras que yo, perdida y loca, siento
quemarse con su propia lumbre viva
esta rosa de sangre de mi pecho.
oñar en la verbena y el jardín
de Cartagena, luminoso y fresco,
y en la pájara pinta que se mece
en las ramas del verde limonero.
Que yo también estoy dormida, niños,
y voy volando por mi propio sueño,
como van, sin saber adónde van,
los tenues vilanicos por el viento.
Sleep peacefully, my little ones,
while lost and lunatic, I feel
ablaze within my burning breast
this vivid rose of blood.
Dream Cartagena, bright and fresh:
the songbird rocked in lemon limbs,
above the garden where there grows
verbena for our wounds.
I, too, am sleeping, little ones,
though walking through the waking world
with dreams that toss and turn me
like a dandelion blown.
Originally from Sacramento, California, p joshua laskey currently writes in Dallas, Texas. He is co-founding Artistic Director of Theater Galatea and founding co-publisher of Indomita Press as well as Associate World Literature Editor for The Literary Review. His published work includes original, adapted, and translated plays as well as original and self-translated short stories, flash fiction, and poetry. For his work, he has received the Toyon Literary Magazine Multilingual Award in Translation, Multilingual, or Spanish-Language Writing, which was awarded to a self-translation of one of his short stories. Find out more at www.pjoshualaskey.com.
Dad hangs a vacancy sign
around his neck so I call
to get information.
“Well, I’m still alive
so the building is solid,
but nobody’s home.
All electrical outlets
are empty behind switch plates.
No knobs control
Last tenant removed
cupboard handles and none
of the doors lock anymore.
But my dad still lives here,
for a vacant building.
Why didn’t Dad forget to die?
If it was mind over matter,
matter (body) won.
Dementia frayed his synapses
until you could see
lighter spark trying to fire
kindling into full blaze
so Dad curled
into himself, fetal ball
with no expectations,
serving his time.
Darkness into light
in final push out,
final moment of lucidity
when he decided it was time
to go before he forgot again.
Diane Webster's goal is to remain open to poetry ideas in everyday life, nature or an overheard phrase and to write. Many nights she falls asleep juggling images to fit into a poem. Her work has appeared in "Philadelphia Poets," "Home Planet News Online," "Better Than Starbucks" and other literary magazines.