Thursday, June 24, 2010


Loudly now - below the open window where I work at my desk, from across the schoolyard playground of a local church school where the teacher leads the preschoolers through a game of
Mother-May-I? - the voices of children drift upward to me and to my cat who sits in the window while I work each morning and who finds small children odd and frightening when they're too close in proximity to him. But, from such a safe distance as this, and looking down from such a height, the cat is more curious today than disturbed.

When the teacher is called away, when she steps back inside the building, Julio changes the game, changes even the terms of the game. No more Mother-May-I? No more civilized, orderly entreaties. No more call and response. No more polite steps forward - baby steps or giant steps - no more please and thank you.

"You're it!" he shouts and punches Emma's shoulder - punches her so hard her blonde braids bounce forward then back. Julio has run off screaming and the playground breaks down into bedlam. The other preschoolers squeal, and scatter like buckshot.

That Julio is trouble. Just ask his teacher: she'll tell you, just like she tells him every morning on this playground right before she sends him to a time-out on the concrete stoop. That boy spends as much time watching the play as he does actually playing.

The tagged girl - the new, blonde "it" - stands there for a moment, rubbing her shoulder, her crumpling face looking for all the world as if she'll cry. But then she clenches her small fists and screeches, "Ready or not, here I come," and she sprints off across the playground in the direction of the arbor vitae and the oak thicket between my side yard and the church school playground where Julio headed seconds ago. The other preschoolers disappear, laughing, crouching behind thick tree trunks and bushes and the gardener's shed at the back of the property. I see that Emma has stepped through the arbor vitae and has a hold on Julio's shirt collar. He looks surprised to see her there, and to see how determined she is to have her revenge on him, cooties or not. He's learning something right now, something even a blind man could read on his astonished face: don't mess with girls. And I chuckle and say to the cat that Julio's face looks just like the faces of a few men who have tangled with me over the years.

And just as the hide-and-seek, tag-you're-it silence falls over the schoolyard, the teacher steps out again. Seeing none of her charges where she left them, she grabs her whistle from her pocket and blows it three times loudly. I hate that whistle. I hate it even more today as, one by one, the children re-emerge and stagger out again into the bright hot sun - all but Julio and Emma who, having heard the teacher's shrill warning - are crouching now on my side of the arbor vitae watching the others line up, boys to the right of the long line, girls to the left, facing the teacher. It strikes me as a peculiar gesture for Church of Christers: more like Southern Baptists, in its tradition of separation of the genders almost from birth. The children aren't talking, so she pulls one boy roughly from the line and shoves him toward the church door. Going for the principle, I suppose, or maybe the pastor.

Good, I think to myself; now someone will rescue them from this beakish woman with the sharp face and shrill voice, this woman who pushes a little boy in front of his schoolmates today. What I am working on falls away, seems suddenly unimportant, as two little girls begin to sob and the woman waxes on and on, demanding to know who changed the game and why they all followed along. And that is when the boy returns and a small man in a starched white dress shirt and tie steps out beside the woman and joins the inquisition.

"Who started this?" he wants to know and I am thinking how you could slice open the fear in the stiff unyielding morning air of the playground. The teacher's brow has drawn itself into almost-precise alignment with her frown. There'll be no mercy from her - and haven't I seen her, heard her, single out the boy every school day as I've sat here at this window, working. He's missed more recess than any of the other children. That concrete stoop should have a sign on it that reads, Reserved for Julio.

I don't recall, just now, exactly when it first occurred to me - when I first noticed - that the bird-faced woman sends him from the play at precisely the instant he chases the little girls. The girls always shriek and squeal, Cooties! and they run, hand in hand, away from him. ALL the little preschool boys do this, of course, chase the little girls at playtime; it is their one greatest joy and delight, to chase and terrorize the girls. But only Julio gets sent to time-out on the stoop for doing it. Gorgeous Julio, brown-skinned, nappy-haired. Julio, who sets off some tsunami in the skinny, hard-faced woman who teaches preschoolers here.

So it is in this moment - "just like that," as my grandmother used to say in wonder and astonishment when something extraordinary seizes someone like me - just like that, I decide to be the angel of this playground. No others have appeared - and who can say what will happen once they line up and march again over that doorway, back into the classroom, beyond the ordinary angels who would intervene on their behalf.

I take the stairs, two at a time, push through the back screen door, and feel the cool of the old farmhouse fall away to the heat of the yard. I cross to the side-yard, to where the two preschoolers are crouching side by side now. When my shadow falls over them, they squint up at me and rise together. Julio takes Emma's hand in his. She looks at him with a kind of gratitude. And now they look at me. And this is when I see it: the fear in their eyes. What, in the four or five years of their short lives, has frightened them like this about adults? Or is it that I am a stranger - and they've surely had that talk from everyone by now.

Shhh, I say, and motion to them while I check the situation on the playground. It'll be okay. I promise. Come with me. Stay close. I take one of their small hands, each, in mine and walk them around the arbor vitae thicket, towards the playground, towards the stern woman and the officious-looking man who is sweating now in wide, wet circles under his arms, down his sides, and along his thin chest. The birdish woman is too intent on fixing the children in her stern glare to notice me at first. And the man is shaking his finger at the sky - a warning, perhaps, about God's displeasure. Or maybe how He sees everything and knows who started this.

Only the line of preschoolers sees us standing there. And maybe because they are staring openly now at the three of us, the two adults turn and notice us too. They seem word-struck, unable to say anything. It seems to me that this might be the perfect time to return the two preschoolers to their proper places. I tuck Emma into place among the other girls and push her braids back over her shoulders. Then I take Julio's gritty, chubby hand in mine again and walk him down the line. I tuck him into place among his friends, these other boys who also have cooties and chase girls and make them run away. And because my back is to the two adults, I wink at him and smile my biggest smile at the other boys who are slack-jawed, looking with a kind of wonder at the tall woman in torn jeans and flip flops and an oversized man's dress shirt with paint all over it. I must look like a giant to them. And I must look gigantic too to the small thin woman with the pinched look on her face and the fragile-looking headmaster - or minister - both of whom are at least a head shorter than I am.

I turn back to the two adults, and look over the rim of my bookish-looking glasses, fixing them in my stern amber stare, hoping they feel something, in this moment, strangely akin to how these preschoolers must surely feel most days. I ask them both quietly who is in charge here and who left such small children unattended here, on this playground so near a busy road. Then I go silent because I know that silence is more unnerving than words in moments like this one. And because something slightly wicked in me - some old, odd ghost of the frightened girl I once was - enjoys the discomfort I see on their faces. And because I think, today, these children need to see that this too is possible.

The headmaster apologizes for any "inconvenience" the children have caused me and assures me that they teach them, at this school, not to bother the neighbors. Interesting, since I am the only one whose property borders this churchyard. The beakish woman takes up the man's note, saying something about how surely I know how small children are prone to mischief. It does not escape me that neither of them has addressed my actual question. I let them stutter on until they sputter and fall into an awkward silence too. Only the cicadas and the birds are crowding the hot morning with song. I want - more than almost anything - to close my eyes and stay in this moment, to linger in it, to relish it for the bright jewel it is among the lesser days of my life. But when a truck rumbles by on the macadam, and I see the woman turn her glare on me, furious at the nerve of me for interfering in her affairs, I see that the moment is already gone.

I point up at the double windows on the upper floor of the old farmhouse we bought last winter. I am a writer, I tell them, and that is where I work all day, at my desk, facing this schoolyard. The children lift their faces to look up at the window where my cat is sitting now, looking down on them. I say I like the children's noise - their mischief as well - and that I see them going and coming. I hear, I say, everything that is said down here. These children, I say, are not an "inconvenience" to me. I emphasize the word and then I wave.

Bye, Julio. Bye, Emma. Bye, children.

I turn and draw myself up now, as tall as my 5-foot, 5-and-a-half inches allow. I will myself to walk slowly, deliberately, back across the schoolyard, past the arbor vitae and the oak, up the back steps and across the threshold, back in to the cool shadows and the neat order of my own house. Only here, holding to the edge of the kitchen sink, do I allow myself the luxury of shaking, of shivering as if I were standing barefoot in a snowbank, shuddering along the whole length of my body, shivering in that way I used to shiver in terror and embarrassment at the front of the schoolroom, my open palms upturned, held out in front of me, quaking in anticipation and the teacher counting out each blow as it falls: one... two... three... four....

photo courtesy of iStock

Monday, June 7, 2010


It seems preposterous now, looking back: that fish pond my father designed, the one he’d sketched out one hot May evening on his blue-gridded drawing paper, the one on which he had penciled, in his precise hand, the exact dimensions of the thing and the directions for its construction, the pond he’d built by hand - concrete, brick and mortar - and its fountain. . . all of it stuck, like a gaudy luxury, to the front of a concrete block house that was unremarkable as all the other painted concrete block houses along our street. When he’d finished it and filled it with water from the garden hose, he’d stocked it with three - or was it four? - large orange Japanese fish. Koi.

I'd loved the pond then, for the fish if not for the pond itself, and for how, when I put my hand into the cool water and held it still long enough, the fish would swim to my hand and latch onto my fingers with their suckered mouths, making a tingling place at the spot where their cool, wet world met my heat-riddled, arid world. My father had astonished me. He had thought of this thing all on his own, then had drawn it, painstakingly and perfectly, in the dim-lit, unfinished workshop behind our house. And then he had made it happen.

If you had asked me, back then, to tell you something about my father, I’d have told you that he worked long hours at the Glidden Chemical Plant across town and that he came home reeking of that chemical soup each evening. I'd have told you how my brother and I held our noses and backed away from that stench. I’d have told you that my father sometimes took a shower, ate quickly and went off to an evening class at the local community college, even after working all day. I would have told you that he went to church and prayed and read his Bible, and that sometimes he’d just start singing in the house for no reason. I’d tell you that, sometimes, he sat on the back stoop and played “Strangers on the Shore” on his clarinet and that it sounded sorrowful and melancholy in the twilight. I'd tell you how I’d come from anywhere – the nearby woods or fields or reading in the house – just to be close when he played that song like that.

But that pond and those fish! They were evidence that my father also dreamed. They were proof that he had conceived of something beautiful which had not existed before and that he had willfully brought into being, that watery thing lit from above by the sun, that orange flicker of possibility in my child’s eye.

That first night, while I lay in my narrow bed beneath the front window - the window right over the little fountain and pond - while I tried to forget the sticky heat of the evening, as I lay there marveling that my father had dreams, I drifted off towards sleep while the little fountain trickled faithfully on under the great expanse of the dark heavens and the Southern Cross.

I began to imagine that our lives had opened that day to something new and that there was a place for these fish – my father’s fish – in our lives, and a place for that water-filled fountain humming beneath my window, and even a place for my father’s dreams. And because I was the child I was, filled with fear and foreboding, because I was a child with a "vivid imagination," and also prone to moments of melancholy myself, it occurred to me that winter would come and that little pond would be rimed then with ice. What would happen to the fish? Would they suffer? Would they freeze slowly to death?

My father, I told myself, will know what to do. And for the first time, I was almost certain of that. Maybe, I thought, he’ll bring them inside. Maybe we’ll have a tank of water in the living room like Beth Poppell's house does, a tank where they’ll swim all winter, safe from the ice. And maybe, come spring, when we return them to the pond, there will be big-eyed babies. I grew dreamy and content then, lulled to sleep by the soft splashing beneath the window, never hearing it for what it really was: the feral cats gathering to feed on my father’s beautiful fish, picking the bright, fleshy parts from his dreams, discarding the impossible bones.