Back to School

My Nemesis on Corduroy, 4”x 4”, cardboard, cut paper, glue, sequins 2022

Long ago, a wholesome, neutral restaurant with a bright orange fiberglass roof and an equally hopeful blue sign stood off the south side of Sunrise Highway in Massapequa. My father would take my mom and me there often, probably to discuss child support amicably in a public setting. I’m sure he didn’t tell his bombshell wife at home about it.

A regular pastime was hiding. Crawling under the pews at church was a great way to say hello to parishioners who were not expecting it, and an effective way of meeting people in Macy’s was to hide in free-standing clothing racks. At Howard Johnson’s, I planted myself under a booth at the farthest end of the dining room and maintained a fox-hole view of my parents. It was not a pleasant conversation, so I hid under the table until my father sent our lovely waitress over to take my order.

My dad would watch me when my mother attended AA meetings, so the first thing I’d do after he had spent twenty minutes or so trying to put me to bed was to leave my bedroom and hide. He would panic once he figured out I was nowhere in sight, more than likely abducted while he was in the bathroom, and I felt awful about that, but not enough to reveal my hiding place. It was too good. I watched him frantically pace between the den and the kitchen, perfectly concealed and folded up like a dinner tray between the marble end table and couch. Just when he’d all but exhausted his search and was about to call the police, I leaped out and darted back to bed. He found me safe and sound on his final check-in, and, because he was too tired from my antics, placating his ex-wife and then explaining to the new wife that he was at his first wife’s house, he’d forgotten what I had done in the first place.

But, before bedtime, he would indulge me by being a student in my favorite game of all time, School. I would have the classroom set up in my room. Most of the students, an assorted rapt and captive audience, were a motley bunch of worn-out stuffed animals seated around a miniature chalkboard in a horseshoe formation. It was the perfect game for me, as I could ham it up and be as bossy as I wanted. I’d prop my dad up off to the side as filler and did not call on him often. He was more of an audience member than an active participant, and because his mind ran hot like mine, no doubt he’d get squirrelly.

‘Sweetheart, can I be the teacher for a little while?’

I relinquished my role as Educator of the Year and gaped in horror as he shifted the student body to his liking. I wasn’t crazy about one doll, a blond Raggedy Ann with an unraveling mane of yellow yarn for hair; he’d put her front and center. MaryAnne was a celebrity in my father’s classroom, probably to get me back for hiding from him all the time. He had a tremendous sense of humor, but lacked the insight and self-regulation many of us refer to while parenting so we don’t completely screw up our offspring.

‘Good morning, MaryAnne! What a beautiful dress!’ MaryAnne donned a blue and white gingham jumper. I always gripped it while swinging her around my head.

‘Attention, class. Please put your notebooks and pencils away; very good.’ He would clear his throat to get into character. Also, he’d insist on being all the students’ voices, which would really send me reeling. I needed some creative control, particularly in dialogue. ‘Students, we have a spelling bee today; I hope you’ve all studied. I can see MaryAnne has come to class well prepared. Now, everyone,’ he stated, glancing back at me jumping up and down, ‘let’s settle down, class. We have a lot to cover today and not much time.’ He’d adjust his pretend spectacles.

‘Students, I’m sure I needn’t remind anyone, but there is to be no interrupting while someone else is speaking. Everyone will get called upon, so please wait your turn.’ Then he’d do a high-pitched, muffled voice. ‘Mr. Gioe, can I use the bathroom?’ My father looked directly at the teddy bear sitting in a rocking chair. ‘You might have mentioned that ten minutes ago, Winnie. Lena,’ he addressed my other teddy bear named after my Aunt Lena, who had sewn a miniature dress out of remnants earlier that summer when I stayed with her in Richmond, ‘please spell the word, CAT.’

Then, he’d do the voice. ‘C, A, T. ‘

‘Very good, Lena!’

‘Pick me!’ -that was me.

‘Class,’ He removed an invisible handkerchief from his pocket, shook it out and proceeded to clean his pretend spectacles. ‘we need to stop yelling out of turn or there will be no recess. Ernie, please spell DOG.’

‘D, O, G.’

‘Magnificent! Winnie, please spell the word, BAT.’

‘B, A, T. Can I go to the bathroom now?’

‘Brilliant! Yes, of course you may, you clever bear!’

This went on for some time. Finally, he turned to MaryAnne, The Golden Child. ‘MaryAnne, please spell, RAT.’

‘R, A, T.’

‘Wonderful!’

‘It’s my turn! It’s my turn!’ I shrieked, pulling out my hair.

‘I didn’t see you back there, Jennifer. Are you ready for your spelling bee word?’

What a question. Yes, I was ready.

‘Jen, I’d like you to spell,’ Long pause here.

‘Constantinople.’

Amaryllis, This Is Phyllis

Amaryllis With Bird. 4”4, mixed media, 2022

This is the whittled-down version of a longer, more violent story.

Marguerite is a shabby town, and I say this with all due respect, but love is too strong a word in this instance. I’d sit on the stoop of the rental most evenings and silently consider the questionable life choice of moving to a dead-end town with little or no professional prospects.

Something attracted my attention as I sat there one night and observed the tip of my cigarette glow against the oily landscape. Squinting toward the back, I watched some movement evolve into a giant black bird. When I say ‘giant,’ I mean pre-historically so. That thing was as big as a hatchback. It perched on a cyclone fence that could never have held its weight for hours, rustling its feathers the way ordinary birds do, but for the most part, it just sat there, unmoving. Hours later, the bird took flight and, within the expanse of a minute, faded into an inkblot on a pale peach sky. I called in sick an hour after my shift had started, and the manager fired me. Good riddance, yet the thought of being stuck in Marguerite without employment was daunting. The only thing I could think of doing was to have a nervous breakdown if you want to know the truth.

Wriggling anxiety laced up my spine at the thought of being destitute. Through a haze of Camel Lights, I began to piecemeal together a plan. It occurred to me I’d seen a shovel out back. I jumped up to retrieve it and dug out a massive heap of neglected daylilies that had withered to parchment. There is something to be said for graciousness, wouldn’t you agree? I believed the gesture would get me in good standing but never considered that giving for the sole purpose of getting is a hollow courtesy at best. I dumped the mess in a wheelbarrow and began to walk toward Agnes’ house.

‘Why, thank you, Phyllis.’ Agnes called out when she saw me standing there, alone, covered in dirt and dragging the sacrificial perennials behind me.

I hauled the lilies out of the wheelbarrow, set the clump on my hip, and put my arm around the detritus like I was carrying a toddler. ‘You are very welcome, Agnes. Can you use any of it?’ Taking some liberty with our newly sprouted pleasantries, I used my free hand to unravel the stalky brambles that weaved the front gate shut, wiggled it a bit, and shimmied through. ‘Certainly. How kind it is of you to think of me.’ I put the lilies down, managed to separate three single plants from the web of roots, and lined each one up against her front step.

I said, ‘Agnes, would you mind if I asked a question?’

‘I suppose not. Come on up here.’ I did as she said and embraced the front porch view, including the dry rot around the windows and door. ‘I know why you’re here, young lady. It’s about the clouds.’ Then Agnes started to talk about it.

‘There isn’t much to it, really. I see things, as I guess we all do, in the clouds.’ She said. ‘Sometimes I see a bounty. A heavy, charged cloud can suggest a pregnancy. Or money.’ Agnes paused. ‘I might see an ominous thing. A dark cloud in the shape of a bird.’

‘A black bird?’ I had to ask. If Agnes noticed a change in me, she didn’t say.

‘I’ve lived here, and I don’t regret it. I worked hard to keep ideas out of my head which could hurt me, feelings planted by dark forces.’ I’m sure she thought I had some idea of what she was talking about, but I didn’t, except for the part about the bird. The mood had shifted from small niceties to something else entirely. ‘You grew up in Marguerite? How nice.’ The tail end of my words constricted in the back of my throat. ‘Yes,’ Agnes continued, ‘I grew up in this house. My family loved me.’ Then she peered up, in-between the soffits and into that bleached sky. ‘I guess you want to know what those clouds are saying about you, am I right? She stopped to catch her breath. When she did finally speak, Agnes seemed to consider her words carefully.

‘You will not like this one bit. Someone sees you. It isn’t a good thing. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. However,’ She hesitated for a beat. ‘It is unending.’ Her gaze rested on something behind me. After a moment, she blinked. ‘Well, that is a tough one.’ Agnes waved her hand dismissively like she was swiping at a fly. ‘Go on home now.’

How awful to trudge back in that relentless heat. Once I’d reached my destination and pulled the wheelbarrow around to the side of the house, believe me when I say that I was desperate for any sounds of life in the trees or burrowed underground and away from such stagnant air. There was no birdsong, no crickets. Just dead. Then I heard it. It landed right in front of me.

The great wings of the beast folded over my head, and I saw the whole of the world, vast and seamless, like a solar wind burning me to dust. I was gone, barely visible. Unending. When I woke up, I was flat on my back in the middle of the road with rain pelting my face, Amaryllis was with me, and I’ve been strapped with her ever since. The end. That’s the short version, anyway.