Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The Whiz--II (a story)

What brings back the memory is the letter I got from her today, the letter and the sound of the football team, whose shouts are now echo­ing through the already leafless trees across the street, the cadence of grunts from the field several blocks away from our house. I hear every exercise the coach has scribbled on the clipboard, and each rally of the kids' clapping once they've finished. It's such a male sound. 

It's the sound I remember echoing across the football field when the two of us, Melinda and I, walked on the crumbling edge of a blacktop road north of the school. That's where Melinda told me about Friedli, and math.

"I can't be with him again," she said. "I can't go back there tonight. I'm sorry," she told me. "Maybe it sounds like I'm backing out, but I don't care."

Cars passed us slowly as we left the school. "I don't get it," I said. “What’s the big deal?”

“It's all because I got brains, see?" she said. "I can't help it that math comes easy. I really can't. Sometimes I try to block it off, but I just get the stuff right away."

Away from school, she spoke more with her hands than she had at my desk.

"Look," she said, "if I quit, people will say, 'Why in the world isn't Melinda in the math thing?' That's what they'll say. You know they will."

Nine weeks into my first year of teaching. What did I know? "Big deal," I said.

"I shouldn't care about what people think?" she said.

"You don't have to do anything you don't want to do," I told her.

"Easy for you to say," she said.

But I was worried about the two of us out there alone, what some young mother might think, some woman picking up her daughter after school.

"Am I taking up your precious time here or what?" she said.

No student had talked to me like that before. "What's the matter?" I said. "You say you don't want to be in the math contest?-all right, quit. Tell Friedli you're out."

Leaves in the grasp of a northwest wind drifted across the road and blew into the stubbled fields running up the hills to the south. She pushed both her hands into her jacket pockets, and I pulled up my collar.

But that was it for awhile. She didn't say another word as we kept walking east past the football field and out towards the town cemetery. Behind us, I wondered what the guys on the team thought of the two of us.

I waited for awhile, and then, once we neared the cemetery, I asked her if she had family there, more to break the silence than anything.

"A brother," she told me, as if I should have known. "He got killed in an accident when I was ten." She walked into the grass and pointed toward a back section where the graves were smaller. "Over there," she said. "I don't think you can see it from here exactly." She stuck her hands back in her pockets. "He got the annual dedicated to him," she said. "You can look it up. He's got his picture in it. So tell me, why do people do that--dedicate something to somebody who's already dead?"

"Probably made your folks feel good," I said.

"My dad drinks every night," she said. "He drank before too. He works at the brewery--I mean, you can drink there all day long if you want, as long as you do your job. And at night. He drinks at night too."

"Gets drunk?" I asked.

"Falls asleep in his chair." She turned her head and pointed farther east. "Bruce Richter's father is out there--that new grave. Every time I see him in school, I kind of shrink, you know. You just don't know what to say to a kid whose father hung himself. Do you say your sorry, or what?—I’m sorry your father hung himself—how does that sound?"

"I didn't know that," I said.

"There's a lot you don't know," she told me.

Some kid went by and laid on the horn. "Freddy Jackson," she said. "He lives next door. He seems like such a kid to be driving already-"

"I don't know him," I said.

"He's a sophomore?—thin, lots of zits?"

I shook my head. "What are we doing here, Mel?" I said. "Is it your father you want to talk about or what? Why am I out here?"


Tomorrow:  Melinda speaks.

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