The room was autumn sweaty; windows were open but there wasn’t a breeze. On the way to school, leaves had hustled in front of my feet, lifting my skirt, flying up in circus toss and flips. But now the wind and I were in school, it was time to hush.
The staccato of pencil on wood was my first clue. I looked up and the drumming stopped, second clue. Mrs. Whitaker crooked a finger for the long walk to her desk. Trouble.
“I never got your biography paper, Halsey.” Part of Mrs. Whittaker’s forehead disappeared into the roll of her witch-black bangs. I was sure she never combed her hair—just pulled the rollers sideways and left her curls where they lay. Her obedient bangs never moved a stitch thereafter and lay smooth but for the dent where the bobby pin had been. My fourth grade teacher was skinny, my mom’s age, and wicked with a ruler. Mrs. Whittaker’s redeeming quality was the scent of fresh laundry that drifted behind her. I loved that smell.
“I got the biography done,” I said. “It’s five pages long.” I lifted a fingernail to my teeth.
“Only heathens chew their nails.”
I dropped my hand and tucked it under the cover of my skirt. There wasn’t much left to chew on anyway.
Mrs. Whittaker moved her pencil to the grade chart. “I’ll drop twenty-five points today. If you don’t have it in time for your presentation tomorrow, I’m afraid I’ll have to register a zero for this assignment. That gives you one more day, and I’m being very generous.”
I felt my eyes bug out. “But I’ve done it! It’s even longer than anyone else’s—five pages. You said we only needed to write two.”
Mrs. Whittaker blew a bull-like huff. “Then why didn’t you hand it in at the beginning of class?”
I screwed up my face thinking of an answer that would save me. The truth was I’d held on to it because I wasn’t sure I wanted Mrs. Whittaker to read it. She was so different from my mom. Mrs. Whittaker had a husband, my mom didn’t. She was built in straight lines, and Mom was all curves. Mrs. Whittaker wore stubby one-inch heels. Mom’s shoes lifted her to the sky.
Plus, I hadn’t really interviewed Mom like we’d been assigned to do. I just wrote down everything I’d heard from my sisters and brother. But I was sure the whole wild and amazing story was true.
Mrs. Whittaker squeezed air through her tunneled nose. “Your sister Maggie never gave me a speck of trouble.”
“I wrote it,” I muttered. “There are five pages. I could’ve written more easy.” Before this year I’d won the third grade poetry contest. English was my best subject. “I won the third grade poetry contest.”
Mrs. Whittaker began flipping her pencil again. Her face was a puzzle of thought.
“Well then,” she arched a skinny black brow, “you won’t mind presenting this morning.”
I cleared my throat. “I can do it,” I felt my scalp pucker up with fear, “but I thought I was supposed to go tomorrow?” Sometimes you do things, say things, write things, and then regret them.
Mrs. Whittaker just looked at me.
She had me beat. “Do you want to see the paper?”
She nodded. “You’ll go last. We’ll squeeze you in right before lunch.”
When I placed my mother’s biography on Mrs. Whittaker’s desk, she glanced only at the top page.
“Back to your seat.” She flicked me away with her hand. “Class, Suzy will begin our biographies. Suzy, I won’t be able to give you the time I promised because Halsey will be presenting today as well.” Mrs. Whittaker placed my paper on the stack with all the others. She handed Suzy her paper, lifted her grade chart, and swiveled toward where Suzy stood at the center of the room.
My turn came at six minutes before the noon bell.
Mrs. Whittaker handed me my biography. I licked my dry lips, took a breath, and said as fast as I could on the exhale, “My grandpa’s hair turned completely white overnight when my mom ran off and got married.”
Everybody gasped. I even heard a noise from Mrs. Whittaker’s direction. I rushed on. “My father was headed to war to be killed, so they got married to be happy for a week or two.”
Mrs. Whittaker interrupted, “If your father died in the war then it’s unlikely you would be alive today, Halsey.”
The class thought that was real funny. Death was always so hilarious. Mrs. Whittaker didn’t even stop them laughing. “It’s important to check your facts, class. Halsey, go on.”
I turned to Mrs. Whittaker and said loud so everyone could hear, “It’s just that my dad thought he was going to die.”
Mrs. Whittaker raised an eyebrow, her lips tightened.
I looked down at my trembling paper. “My mom and dad met during the war. Mom was a telephone operator at Montgomery Hospital. Back then they used a switchboard.” I released one clenched hand from my autobiography and traced a large square in the air. “It’s a huge black board with thousands of holes in it. When someone called, you had to plug a long cord from the desk into just the right spot so the caller could reach the other party.”
“What about your dad? What was he there for?” Amy Borden asked.
You don’t have to answer every question people ask. I learned that from my mother. There were tons of questions about my dad that piled up because Mom ignored them every time I asked.
I continued, “Being a switchboard operator was very important because Montgomery Hospital was the first hospital built after the war began. They took care of all the soldiers who had blown-up body parts...arms, legs, some of them had even lost the whole bottom half of their bodies and their arms too.”
A boy named Larry guffawed into his fist. Sue and some other girls giggled.
“Halsey,” Mrs. Whittaker admonished, “I don’t think this is the place.”
“But I have to tell about the amputees because that’s how Mom first saw Dad.”
Mrs. Whittaker hemmed impatiently. “Well, you’ve only got two more minutes. And remember this is a biography, not a tall tale.”
I squished my eyebrows and took a short breath. “Wellll, one day Mom was looking out the window at work. That’s when she saw my dad. He was out playing with all the amputees in the field below. Just taking care of them, you know. He wasn’t a nurse or anything, he was an officer.” I thought I remembered Anna saying that Dad tied back one of his legs or both arms, so that he was just like the patients. They played volleyball together. I pictured Dad sitting on the ground with a bunch of other men, butting the ball with his head. “It was love at first sight.”
I gazed out the classroom windows at clouds that were changing like white chameleons. “But my grandpa didn’t like Dad. He told Mom he’d disown her if she had anything to do with Dad. I think it was because he wasn’t from Hinckly.”
I hadn’t heard anything from Mrs. Whittaker. I glanced at her. She was still as the air, listening. I was that good.
“Well, Dad didn’t want to get Mom into trouble so he signed up to get shipped off to the front lines of the war. He got on a train and was going to California when the train crashed. None of the soldiers got hurt, except for Dad. His arm was broken. And you know where they sent him?”
“Montgomery Hospital?” Amy breathed from the front row.
“Yep,” I said. “That’s when Dad knew it was fate. He and Mom ran off and got married. Dad figured he was going to be sent off to the front lines and die anyway, so why not be happy with Mom before he died?” I took a big breath for the finale, “It was just too bad the war ended and Dad didn’t die like he’d planned.”
“Halsey!” Mrs. Whittaker exclaimed. “Why would you say such a thing? Are you telling me your mother told you this when you interviewed her?”
I couldn’t answer that question so I said, “It’s true, my grandpa’s hair went totally white. Grandpa disowned Mom, but when he saw her later walking down the street with a baby he took her back. It was snowing, and Grandpa just couldn’t bear it any longer. They made up right then and there.”
There was a little sliver of fingernail left on my pinkie. “That’s the end,” I said and bit down.
Everyone clapped. Then lots of kids raised their hands for questions.
Mrs. Whittaker picked up her ruler and rapped her desk. “Well,” she used up all her air saying that one word. She inhaled, “No time for questions, it is past time for lunch.”
I looked at her in amazement. The lunch bell hadn’t even rung. There was plenty of time.
Mrs. Whittaker ignored me. “Line up. Emily, you lead the class to the cafeteria.”
I moved toward my desk. “Halsey, I’ll need your biography.” Mrs. Whittaker flicked her ruler against the side of her skirt.
Three weeks ago I’d rested my arm on the chalkboard ledge during reading circle. Mrs. Whittaker rapped my hand with that ruler. The red strip stained my hand all day. I held out my assignment. The back of my hand was in plain view.
Luckily, Mrs. Whittaker only plucked the papers from my grasp. “Did you talk about everything you wrote?” she asked.
I rubbed wet palms against my skirt. “No,” I said, “but there are five pages. Just look.”
“Well,” Mrs. Whittaker fanned her face with Mom’s biography. The scent of clean sheets and disapproval came my way like hard wind, “That’s quite a story, Halsey. I’ll have to read the rest. You do want me to, don’t you?”
No, I thought. I took one step, then two. The lunch bell rattled freedom. I rushed for the door.
“I didn’t excuse you, young lady.”
I twisted around. Mrs. Whittaker’s left fingers ticked against wood. She held my paper with her right. I waited. Her eyes narrowed, she scratched her nose. She began to read. On page two, Mrs. Whittaker placed my paper on her desk and bent over it. She snorted at something on page three.
I got bored. I bent my knees and popped them straight. I did it again. Then I swayed left and right, right and left.
“What are you? A snake?”
I jumped. Mrs. Whittaker had finished. She pulled out a drawer and set the pages inside, patting them before she closed the drawer.
“We’ll continue this conversation after school,” she paused, “with your mother. You’re excused.”
“Why?” I exclaimed.
“Oh, I think you know, young lady. I’ll see you after lunch.”
Lunch and every second thereafter was a misery.
After school Mrs. Whittaker and I waited in silence for Mom. The wall clock’s minute hand held and released, held and released. I watched blue sky peek through the clouds, saw bright yellow leaves fall from an ash tree. Its limbs moved toward me. The wind had returned.
“I’m sorry to call you away from work,” Mrs. Whittaker began the instant Mom stepped inside the classroom door, “but it’s very worrisome. Your Maggie was a wonder, so smart, so good. I suppose that’s why I wasn’t expecting...well, Halsey is such a...a fireplug.”
Mom wore red. A shirtdress buttoned to a belted waist with a front pleat for flair. At her neck was a slippery scarf of flaming autumn colors, tied in a knot with the tails tucked into the collar.
Mom asked, “Has Halsey caused some problem in class?” She acted as though it was the last thing that could ever happen.
I pulled my lips sideways to stop my grin.
Mrs. Whittaker flicked her glance at me. “Maybe Halsey should wait outside.”
Mom looked for a sign from me. I moved my head slowly back and forth. I pretended to be looking for something, but Mom got the hint.
“Halsey, can you find a couple of chairs so we can sit together?”
I hopped up. “There’re two right by Mrs. Whittaker’s desk.” I really didn’t want to sit up there. But I didn’t want to miss what they were saying either.
“Okay then.” Mom could read minds.
Mrs. Whittaker sighed, an action that narrowed her eyes. She tented her fingers and said, “It’s difficult to describe, and I’d much rather...” She made a noise, “But it’s your choice.”
We sat down. Mom crossed one leg over the other and ticked her foot.
Mrs. Whittaker tilted her head to the side, “I believe Halsey may be troubled by your current circumstance.”
I yelped, “I am not!”
“Halsey,” Mom said softly, “let’s listen to what Mrs. Whittaker has to say.” But her eyes had gone flat, her hands clutched the sides of her chair as if balanced for flight.
I took a big noisy breath and kept my head down so no one could see my face. My socks were crooked so I reached down and pulled them up. I rolled them, unrolled them. I folded them, but they didn’t look quite right so I pulled them up again.
“That!” I startled up to see Mrs. Whittaker pointing at me, “is the kind of behavior that is just intolerable.”
“Really,” Mom seemed mystified. “But she brings home A grades.”
“Yes, well, who’s to say what you can and can’t see when you fidget like that.”
The implication was there.
Mom’s eyes widened, “Is that what’s brought me here? Have you found some evidence of cheating?” Mom uncrossed and re-crossed her legs. Her left foot tapped the floor.
Red blotches stained Mrs. Whittaker’s cheeks. “No. No. I got off track. If you’d only come to Parent Teacher conferences we could’ve covered these little issues.”
Mom scooted back and settled her hands carefully in her lap, one over the other.
I wished they were talking about cheating.
Mrs. Whittaker’s chair squeaked as she leaned toward her desk. She patted my biography assignment that now lay on top. “Halsey claims she interviewed you for the biography she wrote and presented today. I have reason to doubt her veracity in this matter. Further, I believe you’ll want to nip these stories right in the bud.” Her black eyes sparked. She said, “You don’t want these stories taken for true, that is, if they’re not.”
Mom’s rubbed her lips together, the color of her lipstick was Summer Cherry. Mrs. Whittaker wasn’t a match for Mom’s cold silence. I could’ve told her. Mom never gave anything away.
Mom turned her head toward me. She raised her shoulder so the scarf touched her chin. “Is that what you were asking me about this past weekend, Halsey?”
My jaws were clenched so hard my ears buzzed. Mom’s fingers had knit together.
“It’s all about you,” I warned.
Mom blinked, a fissure of lines creased the corners of her eyes.
“Well,” Mrs. Whittaker interrupted, “either she interviewed you or she didn’t. I would think you’d know with the amount of information I have here. Although I do believe she’s taken some huge liberties with the truth. For example, she says that your ex-husband was married when you, umm, ran off together.”
I swung to Mom, tears stinging, and grabbed the fold of her skirt. “I didn’t say ran off, Mom. I just said Grandpa disowned you when you got married. And I didn’t tell anybody Dad was already married. I just wrote it down.” My voice rose with each additional revelation. “I wasn’t even going to turn it in today, but Mrs. Whittaker thought I hadn’t done the assignment.”
Mrs. Whittaker made a noise. She said, “All the children were required to turn in their assignments before their presentations. Halsey knew that.”
“But I wasn’t supposed to present until tomorrow,” I moaned. “I didn’t think it mattered.” I stuttered to a stop, “Oh, Mom.”
Mom had iced as Mrs. Whittaker and I blew worded storm clouds around her. She untied her scarf, pulled it from her neck, and drew the soft material through her hands.
Mrs. Whittaker picked up my paper and began to read from it, “Dad broke his arm in a tremendous train crash. They sent everyone else other places, but my Dad they sent back to Hinckly—all the way back from California. That’s when Dad knew it was fate. He had to marry Mom even though he was already married with two kids.” Mrs. Whittaker flipped a page. She trailed a finger down the lines, looking for more. “It’s too bad my dad didn’t die in the war like he’d planned. He made it all the way over to Europe, but then the war ended and Mom was pregnant. She had to live with Dad’s wife until he got a divorce from her and married Mom. I think that’s why she lost that baby.” Mrs. Whittaker stared her challenge at me, “Think? You think she lost the baby?”
Mom gazed down at her scarf, her back perfectly straight, just like Mrs. Whittaker’s. Only Mom was elegant, while Mrs. Whittaker was rigid.
“Well,” Mom said, like that covered everything that needed saying. I let out a relieved breath. I knew that was the end of the conversation. That’s how Mom ended things: arguments, questions, discussions that were headed the wrong way. “Well.”
I tried to hush but couldn’t stop my last plea, “I didn’t tell that last part to the whole class. I just told them about Grandpa.”
Mom ignored me. She held out her hand, “I’d like to see the paper.”
Mrs. Whittaker laid the paper back on her desk. A sudden breeze from the window lifted the top sheet, and she slammed her hand down to hold them in place. “I think lying on this scale should be brought to the attention of the principal. Don’t you?”
Mother stood up. She was shorter than Mrs. Whittaker even when she wore three-inch heels, but that didn’t matter. She stepped to the desk, her hand held out.
I couldn’t look at Mom’s face so I looked at her hands. The fingernail tips were perfectly carved quarter-moons; she used a white pencil underneath so the ends were white on white.
When Mom spoke next, her words were full of air and whisper, “I will be talking to the principal. It seems abundantly clear that once you’d read Halsey’s biography you should’ve understood why Halsey wanted to keep the paper back. She shouldn’t have been allowed to say such things before a class room of ten-year-olds.”
“I,” Mrs. Whittaker stopped short. If she explained why she hadn’t stopped me, she’d have to admit she hadn’t read my paper before I presented. Mrs. Whittaker looked at me and then away.
I chewed a fingernail stub. I was no squealer.
Mother pursed her lips and held her palm up for the biography. She sniffed and said, “Halsey’s interview was very thorough.”
Mrs. Whittaker’s nose flared like she smelled something good. She drew her tongue over dried lips. “Then you knew this paper was being written?”
“Sometimes I don’t listen to everything my children say. Do you? I just thought Halsey was curious. We were talking within family, about family.”
Mrs. Whittaker sat sill, weighing what Mom and I might say to the principal balanced against the knowledge she’d gained of my mother’s spectacularly messed up life, the details scribbled out in fourth-grader block print.
When Mrs. Whittaker didn’t move, Mom reached over and pinched the curled corners of my grubby paper. One swift tug and they were free.
“Halsey, get your books.” She folded the papers in two. “All of them.”
We walked home. Mom clutched her scarf in one hand and my paper in the other. Her front pleat kicked out with each step and sighed back into place.
“Halsey, who did you interview about this?” She shook the paper.
I kicked my feet through fallen leaves. I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. “Anna and Maggie and Will.” My brother and two sisters each had a version of Mom and Dad—I’d picked the best parts of them all. “And you, Mom, you’ve told me things.”
Mom lifted an eyebrow. Well, I thought she had.
Mom stopped at the school yard’s end and leaned against a maple tree. She drew the scarf around her neck and started to read my biography. The wind that had only been tickling all day gave way to a harder blow that dropped the maple’s leaves in a rain of orange and red. I couldn’t see Mom’s expression, only her black hair and the scarf whipping its tails against her skin.
Mom lifted a free hand and rubbed her temple, then moved to pinch the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger. She hadn’t even finished the first page before she turned and clutched the trunk of the tree. The wind pushed her from behind and she swayed, shifting one foot for balance.
I squeezed my pile of books tighter against my chest. “Mom, are you dizzy? Are you going to be okay?” An explosion of regret shook me. I buried my head in the ridged tops of math, science, and spelling books, wishing for their stab and cut.
When I looked up, Mom had collected a handful of leaves. She stared at them like they were something she could read:
“Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known...”
“Nothing. It’s just a poem by Keats.” She held her hand high and fat leaves lifted from her fingers to skitter away with the wind. Mom looked at me with the gaze she used when I’d won that award for poetry—that gooey look I’d told her to quit using.
Given the circumstances, I decided to let the look pass without saying anything. In fact, I was glad it was plastered there on her face. I tried to smile.
“Halsey,” she sounded as if she’d run for miles and miles, “some days you let go like they never happened. Would you like to do that with today?”
I nodded and kept nodding. “Yes, Mom. I’m so sorry. Really sorry.”
“Put down your books then. Come over here and take this.” She shook the biography as if to punish each and every word.
I settled my school books in the grass, putting a heavy one on top to keep them from flying, then hurried over to Mom.
She said, “The truths in this biography are like these beautiful, messy, leaves. They resist order or explanation. You can rake them up and jump in them for fun, but eventually you’ve got to let them go. If the leaves stay, they’ll smother the grass underneath. Right?”
“Grandma uses them for compost.”
“Compost is stinky.”
“I guess,” it came out confused and whiny, something I didn’t want, so I tacked on, “plus, compost is ugly.” I took a deep breath and tried to figure what Mom was trying to say.
My mouth dropped, “But Mom, your life isn’t ugly or stinky.”
“No, not at all, but like I said, certain facts can be.” Mom ripped a corner from the biography and threw it into the air. The small bit of page was stark compared to the colors fall offered in exchange. “Now you,” she said with a nod like I was my sister, Anna, who was in high school. I wanted to nod back, but I had no idea what Mom meant.
“I don’t understand.” The wind snuck around my words.
“The biography, dear. Tear up that paper,” Mom said, “Lose it—let it loose.”
“But you haven’t read it,” I protested.
“I don’t need to. I’m not black words on white paper. Is that what you think, Halsey? That putting it in print makes it real?”
“But maybe some of the stuff I wrote is wrong. The principal might ask to see it.”
Mom barked a soft laugh. “What a mule you are.”
I frowned. Mom laughed more. “Tell you what. I’ll fix it so you can go to the other fourth grade class. No more Mrs. Whittaker.” She grinned. “The past is the past.”
“Wow.” This was even better than understanding. “Just rip ‘em up and let fly?”
At first I tore little bits and blew them from my fingers. Words settled to the ground. Others caught the wind, mixing with red, orange, and yellow leaves.
“You’re going too slow.” Mom reached over and grabbed some sheets. Her scarf slipped from her neck and fell. At first the material floated downward, but a gust of wind caught it up and tossed it sideways. It crossed the school yard’s open field, up, around, down, and over, the material a flicker of flame. After a while, the scarf melted into the leaves that darted alongside.
I’d been too mesmerized to chase it. “Mom, your scarf!”
She shrugged, like it was no loss. She was too busy ripping the papers and throwing them, begging them away.
I placed the rest of the scraps I had on the ground. The wind picked them up with a whoosh of sound, and they scattered. I watched papers fly as each shred became its own entity. Then they were gone.
Mom picked up my books. Her heels ticked the sidewalk as she strode away.
“Mom, wait up,” I said. “Don’t you want your scarf? I can go get it.”
“No. You’ll never catch it in this wind.”
“I can try.”
“No. It’s getting too dark to see,” she said, squinting at the westward sun as she reached back for my hand, her fingers wiggling, beckoning for me to follow.
LUAN HALL PITSCHlives in Lincoln, Nebraska. She recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at UNL and holds Masters in Public Administration from the University of Utah. Luan worked as Intake/Probation Officer for the Third District Juvenile Court in SLC, Utah for eight years. Her stories have appeared or are upcoming in The Indiana Review, mendacityreview.com, The Rambler, Lunch Hour Stories and Red Rock Review.