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Stones

Third-place winner of the Wisconsin People & Ideas 2015 Fiction Contest

was sweating and drooling. It was April. I had almost made it through fifth grade. And now I was leaving the planet. Permanently. Until I heard, “Abigail, honey. Wake up!” I couldn't.

“You have a fever,” the voice said, panicky. It belonged to Jane, my mother, sliding her hand under me, her only child.

I squiggled. I squirmed. “Leave me alone,” I moaned and meant it. Babies on TV were born kicking and screaming, but when I was born, I surely cried, leave me alone. That’s what Jane and Lester (he’s my father) did, anyway. Monday through Friday, they left me alone. A latchkey kid. Precious. Rare. Oh, precocious, too—been hearing that one since preschool. Like any of that mattered when Jane found me with my hands limp on a book I was reading about a girl ostracized because she was poor and Polish.

“Easy now,” Jane said and peeled me off the futon. Just that morning she had certified me sick enough to miss school. She wanted to come home at lunch but Mr. Glander was donating a Rauschenberg and Jane had to be there. At noon, she called to see how the chicken noodle went down. 

“I’m not hungry,” I said.

“You have a different hunger, honey.”

 When she said stuff like that—after reading one more parenting book—I almost thought she cared. But my parents were in their own world. Lester was a Wilson and Wagner accountant, a number cruncher. Jane was a bigwig at the Madison Museum of Art and Foreign Objects. Foreign Objects wasn’t in the title. I made that up. Lester and Jane worked together well. He was total brain, but quiet; I guess you can’t shout at numbers. She was a drama queen, very outgoing, in high spirits and obnoxiously optimistic. I’d never be like Jane. She could convince someone to buy drawings of naked people. If you asked me (no one ever did), that was gross.

But back to that different hunger of mine. When Jane called at noon about the chicken noodle, I felt like a noodle. I didn’t tell her that. She would have raced home, ranting about having to be in two places at once. She would have fawned over me or maybe she would have called Mrs. Davey three doors down to flop over in fluffy pink slippers and poofy blonde hair with dark roots. So naturally I told Jane, I’m okay, just sleepy

“Good, good,” she said in her everything-is-wonderful tone. “Take a nap.”

“I don’t want to nap. I want to read my book.” I also wanted to report the words were getting fuzzy on the page, that maybe I needed stronger glasses, but before I could, Jane’s tone shifted.

“Remember then … oh shoot … I’m late for a meeting.” She smacked her lips, which meant she was applying fresh lipstick. “Keep the door locked. Oh, and don’t answer the phone. I’ll be home early. But you call, honey, if you need anything.”

I didn’t bother to say, Roger, Jane, because she had hung up. As for answering the phone and hearing a stranger? It was 1991 and we had caller ID, my parents always guarded and careful.

I poured a glass of apple juice and sat at the dining room table, watching kids who went home for lunch walk past our house. The day was damp and misty. Daffodils were starting to come up in the front yard. Grandpa and I loved these days. I called them subdued. (It’s from Latin subducere, to draw from below, in case you want to know.) 

Grandpa saw these days differently. “Mother Earth needs a break from Old Man Sun.” He winked. “And you, Crabby Abby, need a break from those books.” 

Just between you and me, I liked it when he called me Crabby Abby. It was not what he said, it was the way he said it. I was thinking about Grandpa when I saw a girl named Taylor skip by. Taylor was a PPRB. Pretty Perfect Rich Bitch. Whenever there was a gathering of three girls, Taylor was the one in charge, bossing the other two, who allowed it. Why? Girls did anything to be popular. The triangle changed, one or two moved in or out, but Taylor ruled. 

Right then, I spied her ruling even the sidewalk. I yearned to know how she did it. I wanted to be in Taylor’s crowd, wear laced-up boots with a denim jacket, and watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at her house, instead of alone in my den. Right then, she sensed my wish; she sauntered up our walk and passed through our brick house, her tumbling hair and skinny hips turning into an airplane. She scooped me up and flew the two of us over the rooftops. We saw the mall and the Congregational Church with its white spire and the belt-line highway around Madison. We saw Luke’s backyard with caged-in Dobermans, pacing and whipping saliva strings at the thick wire. We saw Ryan’s mother unload groceries from her Toyota wagon. 

Then, my head wobbled as if I had the outside seat on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Taylor gave me a you’re-so-stupid shove. “At least, Taylor,” I pleaded, “invite me to your birthday party. Please, please.”

“Just because you wear aviator glasses?” The trill of her laughter pushed at me. I never got a chance to push back because the next thing I knew, Jane picked at my face as if a lint storm covered me. Pick, pick, pick. Later, I learned she was peeling strands of hair off my fevered face. She carried me upstairs to bed. Water ran in the bathroom. She slapped a wet cloth on my forehead. She ran downstairs, back up, and this time plopped an ice pack on my forehead. Then I heard her punch buttons on the hall phone and screech, “Nearly unconscious!” 

“Ohh,” I muttered. “Not so loud … ohh, ooh …” My neck pinched. My teeth pounded. Time reversed and I was on the playground with Taylor and Meredith. I had them under my spell. I told them I thought we could be friends and they started whispering and I said, stop whispering, and they did, and then they said they liked my new powder blue sweater and I thought, should I believe them? By mistake I said, “Should I believe you?” Then I started to confuse myself and my mind went mumbo-jumbo. I stood on a swing and announced I would stop talking to myself because it showed what a fool I was. Suddenly, Jill buckled my knees from behind and I took a nosedive into the sawdust.

Then, whoosh, I was in the Sisters of Perpetual Guilt Hospital. It was over a hundred degrees. Jane answered some questions (birthdate, address, insurance) before exploding, “Is all this necessary? She’s dyin’!”

A beefy woman with cigarette breath appeared and lifted my rag doll frame unto a stretcher. I puked. “Looks like meningitis,” she said just as I underwent total transformation. My frizzy hair straightened into flowing corn silk. Birthday girls held helium-filled balloons around me and begged, choose me, choose me. The scene shifted and I morphed into an inchworm, hiding under rose bushes in Ravine Park to watch teenagers smoke and grovel each other while the meningitis germs drilled holes in the scene. 

The germs entered my brain too, a maze of distorted thoughts and twisted feelings. It turned out I was in a hallucinatory state—which I had read about—though it’s nothing like what I read. I can’t describe it and this sounds crazy, but I saw love and it is thin as light. Meanwhile, nurses wrapped me in a cooling blanket. It felt good, to tell you the truth, because I was hotter than melted wax. 

I had trouble opening my eyes, too, yet I knew Grandpa was there, holding my hand, talking by touching. I had always been number one to Grandpa and, overnight, I became number one on Lester’s appointment tickler. And Jane? She fussed over me like when she dressed me in crimson velvet for a gallery opening. I was three, staring at stiletto heels and Guess jeans, the wing-tipped men eating Chicken Oscar. Bored, I stuck my finger in the punch bowl and licked it, expecting sweetness, but the punch had a kick. My throat burned. My eyes watered. I wanted out of there, so I said, “What’s the opposite of opening?”

“Not now, lover,” Jane said, rushing to my side. 

That was before she changed what she called me. Lester said he was her lover and so Jane called me honey, which in my mind was bee excrement. She never called me Abigail and I wondered why she named me that. Anyway, I knew the opposite of opening so I said, “Closing!”

“Why, yes it is,” Jane said, petting my shoulders. 

It was the same nervous pet she gave me in Intensive Care, only there she did not scan the gallery floor, ready with how-do-you-do. This time her eyes darted between the IV needle in my arm and my chest sucking air like a bad swimmer. Her eyeliner welled in bags under her eyes. I had her full attention and I knew why people got sick. 

Well, the devotion from my parents lasted a week. It was replaced by attention from classmates—not during my days in the hospital—but after I returned home. Taylor brought a roll of freezer-wrap paper. When she unrolled it, I saw it had been signed by 24 fifth-graders at Xavier Academy. 

“Miss Williams made everyone sign,” Taylor sneered before Jane came out of the kitchen with bakery sugar cookies and milk. Taylor unloaded my geography and spelling books, plus two sheets of math homework. She put on a nice act for Jane, pretending I was not four-eyes-brace-face, or the last one picked for Keep Away. 

“We miss Abigail,” she said. “Especially at recess.” Her hair caught the light and she looked like a model or movie star. I felt sicker.

“She missed you, too,” Jane answered for me, a habit begun in pre-school when we carpooled and she clucked away with other kids while I sat there, amazed she could talk about nothing and make it seem something. Even then I liked numbers because in my mind they did not have personalities or secrets. They were what they were. Human beings, on the other hand, were unpredictable globs of Silly Putty mashed into shapes to trick me.

“The playground’s not the same without Abigail,” Taylor said.

“I bet,” Jane chirped.

As if I would miss a playground where I neither kicked a ball nor caught one. A place where I once fell off the monkey bars, jammed my knee, and told no one. A place where kids called me Spazzy Abby. I went on the slide only on Saturday morning when Lester was there to spot me. Listen, I was not one of those fat, creamy kids with cookies stashed in their lockers. I didn’t crave Kit Kats or cheesy popcorn. I was just skinny and on the first day of fifth grade when we got our geography books, Josh paged through and promptly called me Ethiopian legs. I could not help being skinny. I had thin genes and Grandpa said they’re the best because they’re easy to haul around. But Grandpa wanted me to stop hauling around my pickiness. 

It’s not like I picked my pickiness, I told him. It picked me. Grandpa laughed at that. He was old but his laugh wasn’t and he tried to help me with the Taylor terror. He wanted me to laugh her off, but he didn’t know about all the trouble I endured. Like Eric, the football bruiser who slammed me into the lockers and gave me a black-and-blue elbow; I didn’t tell Jane because somehow it would be my fault. Either she would say I was so dramatic or it would not happen if I were More Positive. I am positive it was Matt who trapped my back foot, tripping me so I lunged forward, face flat on the floor. After that, I learned to walk with eyes in the back of my head, wondering why kids picked on me. 

Once, I told Lester I was henpecked. (If you have studied chicken behavior, you know what I mean.) “I find that hard to believe,” he said. He ran his finger up the side of his nose. “Unless you’re different at school than you are at home.”

“Yes, I am.”

“I find that hard to believe.” Then he pasted yellow smiley-faces on the foyer mirror, hoping something subliminal would happen to me. Soon, I filed these situations—they would come to be called bullying—like a column of numbers, unaware of what they would add up to.

Back at the dining room table, Taylor and Jane twittered away like best friends while I counted signatures on the poster, most printed, a few in cursive. They were all there. I looked at Wiley’s name, written left-handed in smeary blue ballpoint. I had a crush on Wiley and he had written, To Amazon, his nickname for me. Did he mean a river or a South American hummingbird? Maybe he meant a girl soldier, or worse, masculine woman. Amazons cut off their right breast to facilitate the use of the bow and javelin—like Wiley would know that. I was stupid to have a crush on someone like him, a square-faced bratty boy held back in first grade for dyslexia. Miss Williams said he was just lazy. Lazy or not, he was cute. He wore Michael Jordans and sat on the bench, mostly. But off court, he was popular, dressing in Early Granola, baggy pants hanging off his hips, a Marky Mark slouch. He got some C’s, mostly D’s. He had already found the key to his father’s porn videos. Everyone said he would hold the first beer party for the class, with marijuana for dessert.

I looked again at his slanted writing: To Amazon. Wiley. I imagined him hunched forward, nose at the paper, pen cramped in his left hand, crafting each letter from bottom up. If that handwriting had arrived on a get-well card, addressed just to me, it would have seemed dreamy. Instead, splayed on the poster, it mocked me. Right there in my own house, I felt like hitting someone. I had never felt like that before. Only the rehearsed poise of Jane kept me from sending Taylor to another dimension. 

Other names marched at me. Ryan, who twisted my fingers until I gave up my math. Jody, who had more gums than teeth but her father was school board president with power over us all. There was Crystal Anne, a new girl I hoped to have a chance with. There was Beth, the only other girl not invited to birthday parties. And Taylor, who had drawn eyes but no mouth in the O of her name. She depicted herself correctly, a girl who last fall promised to include me in her sleepover if I carried her books for a week. That extended to two weeks, and then three, before I caught on. And now Jane offered one more cookie to the enemy who took it while I wished for more sickness. I wanted the sudden strangeness of fever, when there was nothing to understand or compete for, just eternal soaring and flying. 

I stared at the cookie crumbs on the lace tablecloth. Taylor was already at the door. She said, “Well, see you in school.”

“See you,” Jane said, beaming. 

I stuck my tongue out at Taylor and braced myself for four more weeks of school before summer vacation, when I would get a break from Taylor and her back-up band of mean girls. 

That weekend, Grandpa came for dinner. He brought me a plant—one huge purple flower with stripes on it. “It’s an amaryllis,” he said. “It blooms indoors. Like you.”

I put the plant on the mantel right next to my favorite photo of Grandpa and his stoneboat. The boat was a thick, flat plank. It was bent where a clunky chain hooked it behind Grandpa’s Ford tractor. Every spring, he picked stones and put them in the boat. That’s pretty funny, if you think about it—no wonder that boat couldn’t float. In the photo, Grandpa’s arms were tanned and bulky like Hulk Hogan and he grinned ear to ear, like work made him happy while all I could think was, no wonder he took long naps.

I looked at the amaryllis; I looked again at the photo. I thought of him spring-toothing the field, then picking up all those stones. Grandpa hobbled over to the bay window and sat on the silk cushion. He asked me to bring him the photo. He squinted. “There weren’t a stone left when we finished.” He sounded melancholic, which is a word for sad that actually sounds sad.

“Do you miss picking those stones, Grandpa?”

“I do and I don’t.”

I wriggled next to him. “Not a stone left when you finished? Not one?”

“You’re smart. You are.” He rubbed his bony knee. “You’re right. The following year, there’d be more stones to pick.”

Because of all the television I watched—Milwaukee cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer had just been arrested, Rodney King’s beating was captured on video, and Unsolved Mysteries intrigued me—I figured there was a dark motive at work. “Did someone unload their stone boat on your field, Grandpa?”

“Nope.”

“Then what?”

“They came out of the earth itself.” 

I had studied gravity. I did not think this was possible. Stones were supposed to sink, not swim to the surface. I told Grandpa this. I told him it was worthless, picking stones every spring if they were going to multiply. Grandpa laughed his laugh that rolled up from his belly and burst through his lips. He wasn’t laughing at me, however. I knew when someone laughed at me. Grandpa wasn’t doing that.

He simply said, “You and your curious side.” 

He liked the side of me that questioned everything. But I couldn’t tell him about the things I questioned most, things that were my stones: the parade of mean kids, teachers who ignored the teasing, and his very own daughter, Jane. But mostly I couldn’t tell him about my feelings. They were inside me and it took me a long time to find them. I was pulled to a life of the mind and often I wished for some clue from my body. I dreamed there might be a path between the body and mind that would tell me which feelings to share. And which ones to keep to myself. Like that thing with Wiley, calling me Amazon because he thought Amazon sounded like Abigail. Did he like me? How would I know? 

“Abigail.” Grandpa cleared his throat. I turned to see him reach in the pocket of his flannel shirt. He pulled out some well-worn red string, tied together at both ends. “How about a little Cat’s Cradle?”

My heart opened as he looped the string around both his hands. Then he put the middle finger of one hand through a loop on the other and pulled. I took my thumb and forefinger and pinched the string, pulling my hands farther and farther apart until the string was taut (that means super tight). Then came the best part. I pointed my fingers down, scooped the string up through the middle, and there it was—Cat’s Cradle, a simple set of swoops and loops for two people.

Besides the Cradle, Grandpa taught me Soldier’s Bed, Diamonds, and Candles. The loopy red string weaved its way between Grandpa’s fingers and mine, one formation after another. Grandpa was all smiles while I thought of going back to school and facing Taylor and Wiley. I thought, too, of how many spring times it must have taken before Grandpa finally picked that field clean. 

I was not going to ask him, however. I knew it had to do with volcanoes and earthquakes and reversing gravity. Once I figured it out, I could figure out how to make a friend. Maybe I could even find a friend to take a ride on Grandpa’s stoneboat.

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Kathryn Gahl is mad about ballroom dance, the color red, and compassion. Gahl's fiction, poetry, and nonfiction appear in many journals.

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