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Lucy’s Blackboard, A short story

By on Sep 28, 2014 in Fiction, Short Stories, Writing | 9 comments

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I was ten when Lucy and her family moved in next door. It was winter and although I had seen her, we hadn’t really been able to play together. She went to public school where my father was a teacher and I went to St. Augustine’s, the Catholic parish school. We didn’t get together until summer. I asked her to take a walk. I always walked then; in the summer I often walked ten miles or so a day. Our street was a dead-end and stopped two doors up with the McKay’s house. It was quiet and there were woods and empty fields nearby. I wandered everywhere unafraid. Lucy’s mother, Marta D’Angelo, wouldn’t allow Lucy to walk in the woods or the fields unless an adult was present. My parents didn’t care. The only rules were that I should be home for meals, do all my homework and help around the house when asked.

Lucy had a playroom in the basement. Her father, Marco D’Angelo, had made her a dollhouse full of tiny furniture. There were real rugs on the floor and wallpaper on the walls. He had also made her a blackboard/bulletin board that swiveled. He had all sorts of tools. Lucy let me look but I couldn’t touch.

“You might get hurt,” she said.

Her father made special wide molding for their house. It ran around the ceiling too. When he wasn’t at work, he was in his basement workshop or in the garden. Mrs. D’Angelo was a telephone operator. We had a party line with the D’Angelos and the Blanes who lived on the other side of the D’Angelos. Mom said people listened in to our conversations. We each had a different ring so we knew when the call was for us. Dad said Mom was paranoid. He said she never had anything interesting to say anyway. I thought that was funny. Later, when I grew up, I realized that a lot of his jokes weren’t funny but that understanding came later. Back then I laughed at her; both Dad and I did. I thought Dad and I were a team. Mom was patient. She smiled by stretching her mouth. Her cheeks bulged but her eyes were always dead, without life.

One day we were in Lucy’s playroom. She had a lot of dolls. I didn’t play with dolls anymore. My parents thought I needed to face reality and Dad didn’t want to waste his money on toys but Lucy had lots of them. She was a year younger than me and Italian. I was Irish. I figured Italian girls played with dolls longer than Irish girls did. “Life isn’t a game,” Mom said. “You’ll learn that soon enough.” Lucy had every toy imaginable. I had wanted a blackboard but Dad said no. Lucy was good-natured and would usually do whatever I wanted. But not on this day.

“Let’s go shoot baskets.” I said.

“No,” she said, “draw my picture. You draw really good.”

Annoyed, I said, “I can’t draw. I don’t know how to draw.”

“Yes, you do. You drew that duck. It was good.”

“That was Donald Duck,” I said, incredulous.

But she begged and begged so I drew her head in profile.

She was thrilled. I was happy to make her happy. It was always fun see her laugh.

“That looks just like me.” she cooed.

“No it doesn’t,” I said but looking at it again it did look like her.

“Mom,” she yelled. “Come look. Mom, Mom, Mom.”

“Wait a minute,” Mrs. D’Angelo called then she came to the head of the stairs. Lucy kept going on about the picture so she came down, a spatula in her hand.

“Would you girls like some cookies?”

I smiled. My mother didn’t believe in sweets. We never had cookies. Lucy ignored her. “Come see. Come see,” she insisted.

When Mrs. D’Angelo looked at the picture, her face instantly changed.

“You nasty little girl,” she hissed. “Lucy, go upstairs.” I was shocked. I had been expecting praise. Lucy had convinced me that the picture was good. I knew it was way better than Lucy could have done. “Go home,” Mrs. D’Angelo said.

I had never seen her angry before. Her eyes were beads of black coal. “Go home,” she said again. “Lucy, get upstairs.” She grabbed the eraser and obliterated the picture of Lucy.

Lucy cried. “No, Mommy, no, it looks just like me.”

I felt hot, confused and stumbled out the door. I ran to the dividing line between our yards and jumped over. Then I stopped. I was in trouble. I was in big trouble. I had done something unforgivable, something horrible but I didn’t know what. I’m bad, I thought, and I can’t play with Lucy anymore. Lucy is nice and I’m bad.

My mother was in the kitchen and I rushed by her to get to my room. Once inside I shut the door. I sat on the floor in the corner and drew up my legs making myself as small as possible. Mom opened the door.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“What do you mean you don’t know? Something happened.”

“I don’t know. Mrs. D’Angelo is mad at me. She told me to go home.”

She stood over me and seemed ten feet tall that day. I told her what happened, that I had drawn a picture, that Lucy liked it but Mrs. D’Angelo went crazy all of a sudden for no reason.

“Wait until your father gets home,” she said. “We’ll get to the bottom of this. You did something.”

When Dad came home, Mom told him what happened. He asked me to tell him everything, not to leave anything out. I did.

“Well, we’ll see,” he said and went over to the D’Angelos. When he came back he shrugged his shoulders. He said Mrs. D’Angelo wasn’t angry and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. “You misunderstood. She’s not angry. She said she wanted Lucy to help her make cookies and asked you to go home. That’s all. Everything’s fine.”

Back then I thought all adults were strange and I was careful to always obey Mrs. D’Angelo after that. She never went berserk again and was always sweet to me. She doted on Lucy. She seemed to love Lucy more than my Mom loved me and I was jealous. Lucy and I played a lot that summer. We were together constantly. It took me awhile but I stopped being afraid of her. I didn’t like to go to her house anymore but Lucy didn’t mind coming to mine. She was easy going. She would do anything I asked her to do. She never expressed a desire to do anything herself but was always ready and eager to do what I wanted.

The next summer we didn’t play as much but we still played. Lucy could do cartwheels and I couldn’t. I couldn’t get my feet up in the air but she would go on forever. She was almost double-jointed. She could put her feet behind her head and walk on her hands. She made frog noises when she did this. Other neighborhood kids would say. “Make like a frog, Lucy,” and laugh and she would. She never minded. We all laughed. The two of us had a special song and we made up a dance to go along with it. The song was “Playmates” by Jimmy Boyd.

There words are:

“Playmate, come out and play with me
And bring your dollies, three
Climb up my apple tree
Look down my rain-barrel
Slide down my cellar door
And we’ll be jolly friends forever more.”

We didn’t have a rain-barrel. Mom said she had one when she and her sister were growing up. She said the water was softer than well water and they would use it to rinse their hair a final time. She said it made their hair softer. She said we didn’t need one and it would just grow mosquito larvae, that it was a lot of trouble and we had city water anyway. The D’Angelos had a cellar door but it was metal and usually too hot to slide on.

We made up a dance to go along with the song. We put our arms around each other’s waists and kicked as high as we could. Then we went back three steps, forward three and kicked again, then back then forward then kick. At the end we looked at each other and sang “And we’ll be jolly friends forever more.” really loud. It always made our parents laugh. It made Lucy’s brother, Mark, laugh too and he was serious. He was two years older than us and stayed out of our way. But we made him laugh. Mom and Dad thought Lucy was a great friend for me to have. The D’Angelos were Catholic like us even though Mark and Lucy went to public school.

After awhile Lucy wasn’t fun anymore. We could still do some stuff, like shoot baskets although I was much better. Lucy was awkward with the ball but she hung in there. Sometimes she would just catch the ball and throw it to me so I could practice. She couldn’t play card games and the books she read were for children. They had pictures in them. Sometimes a shadow of sadness would cross over her face and if that happened, I would try to make her laugh. She never got mad about anything and was always ready to have fun so I tended to do things she could do, but I got bored. I’d say I had to study or help my mother and she would go home looking confused. It hurt that we couldn’t be friends anymore and it hurt that she bored me. I complained to my mother. She told me I was a spoiled brat. When Lucy came over, Mom forced me to play with her. It was as if Lucy was ten and still a little girl and I wasn’t. I was growing up. I still loved to make her laugh. She threw herself into being happy. It was a delight.

The year I graduated from the eighth grade and started going to school downtown at the Our Lady of Fatima was a defining break in our friendship. I wore a uniform, a white starched blouse with a collar and a miraculous medal, a navy blue serge skirt, a wool navy blazer with white piping with the school insignia on the pocket. I was afraid of the public school kids. They made fun of me if I ran into them. Lucy could wear whatever she wanted. I was jealous. I didn’t see much of her. I had to take the streetcar home then walk a mile so I usually got home just in time to eat at 5 pm. I helped with dishes and went straight up to my room to do my homework. I had two hours of homework a night.

One weekend I was over at Lucy’s house and she showed me her geography homework. She was pasting pictures from magazines into a notebook.

“That’s your homework? That’s easy,” I said. “Do you take Latin? Do you take geometry?” She didn’t and when I went home I told my Dad I wanted to transfer to public school. He was always complaining about all the money he had to spend to send me to private school. I told him about Lucy’s homework.

“She’s done her homework in fifteen minutes. I spend two hours. I don’t have time to do anything else. It’s not fair.”

“I don’t know how to say this,” he said and let out a big breath “and don’t you ever say anything about this to anyone else. This is between you and me, young lady. You hear me. Don’t you ever say anything to Lucy.”

“I promise,” I said.

“Lucy is in special classes. Her homework would be easy for you. But her brother is in the A division. He’s a smart one. He’s going to college, probably Engineering School.”

“Lucy’s dumb?” I asked.

“No, no, she’s not dumb,” he said. “She’s special. Don’t you dare say anything. It would kill Marta. Don’t say anything to the D’Angelos.”

“I won’t. I promise,” I said.

That made sense. That’s why Lucy never had any ideas. She was still sweet but we drifted apart.

 

We both grew up and got married and then we both got divorced. My mother had died and my father remarried and moved to Florida. I moved back to my old home next door to the D’Angelos with my two daughters. It was still a great place to raise children. The D’Angelos were Marco and Marta now and it was nice to have them nearby. Marco helped me sometimes with my projects if I got confused or overwhelmed. He helped me put in a new screen door closer, and sometimes would lend me tools. Marta would drop by with cookies for the girls and me. I didn’t bake. I didn’t approve of sugar either, just like my mother.

One day Marta came to get me.

“I want to show you something special,” she said conspiratorially, giggling like a schoolgirl. Certain things made Marta happy. It might be a flower or a sunset, usually something to do with nature.

Her manner made me excited.

“It’s upstairs,” she said, “in the attic. As we walked up the close stairwell, Marta looked back several times and smiled. “You’re going to like this,” she said. “It’s special.”

There were three dormers and in each of them was a birdcage full of canaries. Marta’s face was alive with excitement. “I’m raising canaries,” she said. And so she was. There must have been fifty canaries in the attic room and it seemed as if all of them were singing at once. I was conscious that Marta was watching my face to see my reaction. I don’t think I disappointed her because she laughed. “Marco made the birdcages for me,” she said.

The attic was a fairyland of song. The frail canaries danced on their perches and seemed almost translucent in the stream of sunlight coming in the window. They were in varying shades of gold and yellow, some so pale they were almost white.

I bit my lip and was silent as if the spoken word would break the spell.

“It’s hard to learn to raise them in captivity,” Marta said, “but I have a mother canary who has just laid eggs. They are so tiny. Do you want to see?”

I nodded.

“Be very quiet. We don’t want to spook her.” The eggs, when I saw them, were in a nest less than an inch in diameter. There were three miniature eggs, each smaller than a pencil eraser inside. “Aren’t they incredible?” Marta asked.

I nodded yes.

“I knew it,” she said. “I knew you would like them.”

We bonded that day and I somehow made Marta happy. We moved away from the mother and her eggs.

“Do you know what I think is amazing?

I couldn’t imagine. I shook my head.

“The father teaches his song to the son. Usually only males sing although some females do too. But it’s the father who teaches his song to the son and the son only learns the father’s song. He can hear all the other birds singing but he won’t learn their songs. He will only learn the song of the father and if the father isn’t there, he won’t be able to sing.”

The birdcages were a cacophony of singing. Each bird was singing his heart out.

“You’re right,” I said. “That’s amazing.”

We went down and I felt soft, full of emotion. I nursed and relished the feeling. I was glad to be alive. Marta was strong, healthy and gentle that day.

“I knew it,” she said. “I knew you would like them. You always were like that.”

 

Lucy’s ex-husband, Sam, visited Marta even though they were divorced. If he saw me he would come over to talk so I tried to make sure he didn’t see me. He smelled of booze and cigarette smoke and it was difficult to breathe when I was around him. The two of them, Marta and Sam, seemed to have a special connection. They would have tea and cookies. Marta always was a good one for cookies. Sam said she was smart and he liked to talk things over with her. Marta said he had problems, that he needed someone to listen to him. I never saw Lucy but Marta said she was fine.

 

It was Sam who told me Marta was dying. She had colon cancer and only a few weeks to live. She wouldn’t let me visit her. Marco said she didn’t want people to see her ugly. I thought of her often and took food over but I didn’t try to make cookies. I knew I wouldn’t be able to compete. Then one day Marco called.

“She wants to see you,” he said, “just for a minute.”

I went over. She was wrapped in a blanket and sitting in a chair. She didn’t look like Marta. Her skin was gray and her face seemed to have drooped. She read my expression correctly.

“See,” she said. “I’m ugly.”

I couldn’t speak. “No,” I said but she was.

“Do you ever see Lucy?” she asked.

“No,” I said and felt guilty. “I’ll call her. Maybe we can go to a movie.”

“Okay,” she said and was silent for a while. Then she said, “You can go now.”

Okay, I thought. She’s worried about Lucy. I see. I’ve been remiss. I’ve lost touch. I should call her and I did.

 

“I went to see your mother,” I told Lucy when I called her. “I’m sorry.”

“I know, I know,” she said.

“We’re both divorced,” I said. “I wondered if you would like to go out or something.”

“No,” she said very definitively. “You don’t understand. I’m not like you. When I walked down that isle, it was forever. When I made my marriage vows, it was forever. I will never remarry. I will never date again.” She started to cry.

“No, no, I don’t want to go to a bar or something. I meant do you want to go to a movie, hang out a little.”

Then she told me a story about a little bird that kept going back to the same windowsill each day. The windowsill always had breadcrumbs on it. Then one day the person who put the breadcrumbs on the windowsill moved away and there were no more breadcrumbs on the windowsill. But the little bird kept going to the same windowsill looking for food. It didn’t go anywhere else. It got sicker and sicker.

“That little bird is me,” she said.

“You mean Sam?” I asked. “Did he used to put breadcrumbs on the sill?”

“Yeah,” she said.

 

I called every once in a while after that and she told me the little bird story over and over. She never wanted to go out. She was stuck and I didn’t know how to get her unstuck.

When Marta died. I drove from the church to the cemetery in Sam’s car in a funeral cortege. He never stopped smoking and his car was rank with cigarette smoke. I had the window open throughout the trip to keep from gagging. He smoked and cried the whole time blubbering. I wanted to tell him to look after Lucy. I wanted to make him feel guilty so he would go back to her and I would be off the hook, but I didn’t. It probably wasn’t a good solution anyway. He drank too much.

 

One night at 1 am the phone rang. I grabbed the phone and ran down the hall to check on the children. They were both in bed. They were safe. It was something else. It was Lucy and she was crying, really bawling.

“It won’t stop,” she said. It goes on and on and on and on and won’t stop.”

“What won’t stop?”

“The toilet. It’s running, running, driving me crazy.”

“Did you turn the water off?” I asked.

“It’s running, running,” she said. It sounded as if she was gritting her teeth.

“Calm down, Lucy, you can fix it. Look underneath the toilet and turn the water off. There’s a faucet down there.”

“I’ll make it stop,” she said and the phone clattered to the floor. I heard a crash like glass breaking. I kept calling her name but she didn’t come back for a while. When she did, she seemed calm.

“I stopped the noise,” she said in a solemn voice.

“What did you do?”

“I smashed it with a hammer.”

“I’ll be right over,” I said.

Lucy was outside when I got there dressed in wet shorts and a T-shirt. She stood in a half moon of light from the porch, her arms crossed and her hands grasping her shoulders as if cold. She dug at a clump of grass with her big toe, stabbing it.

“Where is it?” I asked.

She took me to the basement. I could see the toilet through the bathroom door with the tank broken on the floor. Next to the steps was a sign written in indelible ink on the cement block. The sign said WATER MAIN in letters six inches high. I turned it off, giggling because it seemed childlike to see it there, as if it was one of those signs Alice kept seeing in Alice in Wonderland. “EAT ME,” I thought. I guess this has happened before, I thought. Marco probably wrote it there. I turned the water main off and then sloshed into the bathroom. I tried to turn the faucet off under the toilet but it wouldn’t budge.

“Do you have a wrench or a pair of pliers?” I asked Lucy.

She didn’t answer. She stood there in the water, tears running down her face. “It was running,” she said, as if that explained everything.

“I know,” I said and looked around. I found a toolbox and pliers. With them I turned the faucet off then turned the main back on so she would have water.

“Where’s Sam?” I asked.

She shrugged.

“Where’s your Dad?”

“He’s at Marks.”

Mark lived in Ohio, about 500 miles away. “So you’re all alone.” I said.

She nodded.

“Do you have any tea?” I asked.

We went upstairs and she changed her clothes. We both wrapped up in blankets and I made some tea. I wanted to put her in bed but she wouldn’t go. I had to get home. I hadn’t left a note and if my girls woke up they would be afraid if they found me gone.

“I’ve got to go, Sweetie, but you know what? It was kind of fun being with you, kind of like the old days.”

She wasn’t buying it.

“Okay, here’s what I want you to do.” I checked the clock on the wall. It was 3 am. “Tomorrow morning around 9 am, not now, wait until morning, call your Dad. Tell him what happened. I’ll call you later today to see how you are. Okay?”

She nodded and I left, glad to get out of there.

The girls weren’t up yet. They were none the wiser. I made coffee and took it out onto the back porch overlooking the lawn, the same lawn Lucy used to turn somersaults on. I was tired but wound up. As I sat there I started thinking about the day I drew Lucy’s picture. I remembered Marta’s reaction and how frightened and confused I was. It wasn’t until that moment in the early dawn sitting there on the porch that I understood what had happened, what had made Marta so upset.

Lucy was pretty. I always thought her pretty. Everyone did. I didn’t understand then that Lucy was special. It hadn’t mattered when we were young. What I had drawn that day was a caricature of Lucy. I traced her silhouette with my finger in the air. There wasn’t anything definitive about her profile. It was the way all the little things added up. Her forehead sloped slightly backward but not much. Lots of people have foreheads like that. It doesn’t mean anything. Her cheekbones were high; to die for, the make up artists would say. She had a strong overbite and a correspondingly recessive chin but that wasn’t it either. They never fixed the overbite, my adult brain noted. I wondered why not. Her hair, black and straight, grew into her forehead. I wondered why and when I was ten put it in the picture. Her eyelashes were thick and straight as a poker like her hair. Her eyes bulged slightly and were widely spaced. A sick feeling come over me. I knew then what Marta saw when she looked at the picture I had drawn. She must have thought it nice to have me as a friend for Lucy and I lived close by. But when I drew the picture, she thought that I knew. I didn’t. Lucy was my friend. I didn’t understand what it meant to be “special” but Marta didn’t know that. I looked out over the yard at the sun tipped grass and waited for the day.

The End

That’s the story. If you’ve gotten this far, you must be at least a little bit interested so I’m wondering if you would comment, help me work some things out.

I’m not happy with the first sentence and the first paragraph. It’s supposed to pull you into the story, make you want to read it. I don’t think it does. Do you have any ideas about how to improve it?

Can you feel the characters? Do I need to flesh them out?

The canaries. It’s a sweet story. In my writing group the women liked it and the men seemed to find it a  saccharine. Do you have an opinion?

Suppose I leave the canary story and just take out the part about the baby canary singing like the father and only the father. Cut out this part,

“Do you know what I think is amazing?
I couldn’t imagine. This was amazing enough for me. I shook my head.
“The father teaches his song to the son. Usually only males sing although some females do too. But it’s the father who teaches his song to the son and the son only learns the father’s song. He can hear all the other birds singing but he won’t learn their songs. He will only learn the song of the father and if the father isn’t there, he won’t be able to sing.”
The birdcages were a cacophony of singing. Each bird was singing his heart out.
“You’re right,” I said. “That’s amazing.”

It doesn’t add anything to the story. It may be what annoys the men.

What about the part where Sam and I drive to the cemetery. What if I manipulate him into going back to Lucy. Would that make it more interesting?

I really beat myself up about the last paragraph. I’m afraid someone might think I’m talking about them and be hurt. Any opinion?

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9 Comments

  1. Vickey Monrean

    September 28, 2014

    Post a Reply

    This story has so many lessons. You cannot read this without looking inside yourself.

    • hannahpowers

      September 28, 2014

      Post a Reply

      Vickey,
      I didn’t mean it to be an introspective piece so I’m a little surprised. It’s only about growing up and seeing things I thought I understood differently. Time allows perspective.
      Hannah

  2. Kathleen

    October 1, 2014

    Post a Reply

    Hi Hannah,
    I liked the canary section, but you could think about how to show rather than tell the emotion of the scene.

    • hannahpowers

      October 1, 2014

      Post a Reply

      Kathleen,
      I’ve redone the canary section incorporating your suggestions and I’m grateful you took the time. Thank you. I need to remember the old adage about showing not telling. Not everything was changed. You know what they say about “little darlings”; they’re hard to give up.
      Hannah

  3. Brooks

    October 1, 2014

    Post a Reply

    Anna, the story was a delightful read. Knowing you, I could almost hear it in your voice; you write the way you speak, with a certain gentleness and using a demure tone. The information about the canaries’ songs was new to me, and I thought it functioned as a juxtaposition with the narrator and her own father, whether you did this intentionally or not. The concluding paragraph seems alright to me, but it seems as though you repeated yourself when you made the observation that we see more clearly in retrospect than we did as children. The men in the group have somewhat dominant personalities, so take them with a grain of salt. I think you have done well here and am not convinced that you should change a thing. I feel privileged to have read it. Not saccharin, but refined baking sugar (3x).

    • hannahpowers

      October 1, 2014

      Post a Reply

      Brooks,
      You may well be right. The canaries’ songs might have had something to do with an unconscious father/daughter sensibility. I don’t know. I like the thought. So it’s “refined sugar”, is it? I like it. Thanks.
      Hannah

  4. Carlton Avery-Trujillo

    November 8, 2014

    Post a Reply

    I like Lucy’s Blackboard very much. Sorry that I’m only now
    reading it. If anything, work on the first paragraph…it covers a lot of ground. I found the canary section enchanting and the last paragraph a nice summation of the whole.

    • hannahpowers

      November 8, 2014

      Post a Reply

      Carlton,
      Thanks for reading. I’ll look at the first paragraph again and talk to you Wednesday if you come. Thanks for reading.
      Hannah

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