Nonfiction by Linda Ferguson
1. Sunday School
My mother makes pretty clothes for me. She makes a white eyelet skirt and a pink-striped coat and a peasant dress with puffed sleeves. I wear my pretty clothes to church. Beside me, my mother sits with her ankles crossed and her knees together. My father and brothers sit with their knees apart or an ankle resting on the opposite knee. I try to sit with my legs together, but my thighs want to spread out against the wooden pew, to melt like cookie dough on a hot baking sheet, through the choir’s somber hymns, through the sharing of joys and concerns, through the scripture and the sermon. Outside, my shiny shoes wink in the sunshine and rub blisters on my skinny feet.
2. Tennis, Anyone?
My mother and father are at work. My brothers play tennis in the street. I ask, Can I play? They say, No. They say, No, you’re spazzy. I climb the steep driveway, squinting from the glare of the July sun on the white concrete. I hit a tennis ball against the door of our father’s double-car garage. I swing my arm and hear the thud of the ball against the door. Swing and thud, swing and thud. My father comes home and says I’m going to break his door. I go inside. I fold laundry. I unload the dishwasher. I go back out and lie on the chaise lounge and read a mystery. I roller skate in circles around the patio. I go inside again and sink onto my daisy-print bed.
I close my eyes and become anyone I want. Today I’m Pepper Anderson, the TV undercover cop with frosted hair that swoops over one eye as I chase bad guys. I chase them down alleys that glitter with broken glass, the brick walls echoing the clickety-click of my stiletto sandals as I run.
Once I went undercover as a prostitute. I was a prostitute in a long red halter dress with sequins that winked at the killer I was supposed to catch. My sequins winked, but the killer knew I was a cop and came at me with a knife. I kicked at him and still he came. Luckily, my dark-eyed partner broke down the doors in the nick of time. My partner cuffed the killer and held me tight, whispering, Pepper, Pepper into my frosted hair and, in return, I tightened my arms around him.
4. Physical Education
Long hair has to be tied back for P.E. I don’t like ponytails, but I’ve got new shoes like the ones my brothers wear – not nerdy canvas oxfords, but real running shoes – white nylon with red stripes for today’s shuttle race. The whistle blows and I start to run, but the rubber treads of my new shoes stick to the gym floor like chewed gum. The treads stick and I stumble and fall in front of everyone – the teachers and the other runners. I get up and start to run and stumble again. Like a baby giraffe’s, my long thin legs keep collapsing.
5. My Life in France
My mother works in an office all week. On Saturdays, we clean house together. I’d rather be reading, but I push the vacuum across the green shag carpeting, I empty my father’s ashtrays, I rub a dust cloth into the grooves of the dining room set – the table, the chairs, the hutch. Let’s take a trip somewhere, my mother sings from the bathroom as she scrubs the sink. Let’s shake out our hair, I sing back as I fold the laundry.
When we’re done cleaning, my mother turns on the TV. She collapses on the couch, yawning. I settle myself on the couch, too, pulling up my share of the afghan. My mother yawns again, grateful to be off her feet for the first time all week. She smiles her sleepy smile and says she must have narcolepsy. I think I must have narcolepsy too because my head is heavy. I rest my head and picture my future husband, Jean-Claude, who comes from Paris where he’s famous for winning three gold medals for skiing. Jean-Claude takes me to the Alps, and the wind stings our cheeks as he teaches me how to skim through the trees and down the slopes of sparkling snow.
I snap a picture of my new friend sitting on my narrow dorm bed. In the photo, she’s leaning forward, and she’s laughing with her mouth open wide, and her long, dark bangs are skimming her eyelids. She tells me she was 16 when she met her boyfriend, a lanky 21-year-old with wavy blond hair. She used to meet him at night, she says. When her mother and her sister were asleep, she used to slip out her window to spend the night with him.
I’m studying literature, while my friend is drawn to chemistry. In her head, she knows words that I don’t know: catalyst, fission, half-life, reaction, electron affinity. As a freshman, she’s already planning where she’ll get her master’s degree. She’s kind and quiet and steady as a bear moving toward a stream tucked into a thick forest of trees, while I’m tiptoeing into a grove of sonnets and stories.
Before I learned to drive, riding in cars made me as sleepy as a Sunday afternoon – the smell of a sunbaked dashboard, the click of a seatbelt, the stale air inside a green sedan, a white station wagon. Like arms rocking me to sleep, no matter who was at the wheel – my father, my mother, my brother, my friend, anyone.
Now I drive myself. I hold the wheel in my hands and steer my giant ’68 Skylark around soft curves, over hills covered with the new spring grass. Around the curves I go, up and over the hills, with my passengers – my mother in front and my young son and my baby daughter in the backseat behind us.
My mother plucks at the crisp hem of her coat. She wants to drive for me, to be useful. It’s my turn, I want to tell her. It’s my turn to start the song, to hold the wheel. Inside my head, I say the words: It’s my turn.
Drizzle falls as I ease my car into the school parking lot. Across the drizzle, I see my husband waving to us from the field where his students are warming up. We squish through the muddy grass toward him, my daughter in my arms, my son beside me, my mother in brand-new jeans as white as toothpaste. One of the students is preparing to throw the discus – a big-boned girl with bold arms and a bushy ponytail. Amazon, my mother leans in to whisper as we draw near. The big-boned girl bends her knees and swings her body round and round, winding up her weight, and then releasing it. Her fingers open and she sends her discus soaring. Her fingers open and heavy as lead, the discus still flies, humming through the drizzle then landing in the shaggy grass. My husband takes our daughter in his arms and asks, Would you like to do that some day? My mother laughs. Together, we all watch the Amazon pick up her discus again. She picks up the discus and spins, her muscled arm extended, aiming for greater distance.