Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Natalie Sypolt
Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in West Virginia. She received her MFA in fiction from West Virginia University in 2005 and currently teaches writing at WVU. Her work has appeared in literary journals including Kenyon Review Online, Willow Springs Review, The Queen City Review, Flashquake, Potomac Review, Oklahoma Review, and Kestrel. Natalie’s writing has received several awards, including the 2009 West Virginia Fiction Award from Shepherd University, judged by Silas House and the 2009 Betty Gabehart Prize sponsored by the Kentucky Women’s Writers Conference. Her stories have also been honored by writers Ann Pancake, Amy Greene, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Her story, “Love, Off to the Side,"was short listed for the 2010 Pushcart Prize.
Kate parked the car in front of her last home visit--a single-wide trailer tucked into woods so dense that just a little patch had been cleared in the trees for the home and a small yard. It looked shady, cool. She hated to get out into the sticky air, but wanted to get this over with, get home to ice cubes and a circulating fan. She quickly looked at her class roster to remind herself of names. The parents always expected that she would remember their kid from kindergarten registration or the Popsicle Social in July. That’s what a good teacher would do. She’d been teaching just long enough now to realize that it was always going to be like. Repetition, year after year, faces and names all blurring together. A is for Apple; Indian costumes out of paper bags at Thanksgiving; the gift of Christmas ornaments year after year proclaiming her to be the “World’s Best Teacher”.
The World’s Best teacher wouldn’t be so bored today, so ready to throw in the towel, just because of a little heat. She’d already made five visits--the last two belonged to a screamer and an interrupter, respectively—and it was so god-damned hot. She’d also been dealing with Ryan all day, calling every 45 minutes to make sure that she was still alive. He hadn’t liked that she was doing this alone. Going to the nice houses close to town was one thing, but when he found out where some of her students lived, he’d gotten nervous. He wasn’t from here, didn’t know that sometimes it was the ones in the nice houses you had to be most careful of.
The trailer was in a pretty place, down a long dirt drive and close to Green’s Run that fed back into the river. She’d lost her cell signal and was glad.
There was a little porch built on the front of the trailer and the yard was freshly cut—probably for her visit. People went to a lot of trouble for her. The few outside toys were collected near an aluminum swing set and there was a tire swing hanging from one of the big trees. It reminded Kate of where she grew up in the next county over. Before she even got out of the car, she knew what it would be like inside, long rooms that always looked a little cramped, a little too full of stuff. Trailers looked lived in, almost immediately, and she’d realized recently as she watched her father patch and mend and replace, that they weren’t really meant for a lifetime. It was as if they had an expiration date and after too many years, things go wrong and fall apart. Sinks leak into the towel cabinets underneath; floors that had somehow gotten wet need fixing before a foot went through the soft spot. Ceilings grow round brown circles. But still they were good homes.
She picked up her cell phone from the passenger seat, but before putting it in her bag she saw the “missed call” message on the screen and knew there’d be a voice mail waiting from Ryan. She’d explained how important these home visits were in building good relationships with the kids and their families, how necessary to get the parents involved. And they were required by the county. The other teachers already were unsure of her because she was new and young (and a little cautious of her because Ryan was the pharmacist who filled all of their private prescriptions). It wouldn’t do her any good to let them think she was afraid of her students or their parents. Besides, today was the only day she’d have to go it alone. Her aide, Miss Jennings, would soon be back from her sister’s wedding in Wheeling, and they would finish the rest of the class together.
Kate knew how to handle Ryan. It wasn’t really so different than getting her students to do what she wanted.
“But Miss Cartwright, I don’t want to take a nap today.”
“I understand, Pauline, but naps are good for us and, besides, it’s only for a little while.”
“But Miss Cartwright, Tommy took the green crayon and I need the green crayon.”
“I understand, Brian, but it’s important to share. Besides, the yellow crayon is just as nice and yellow is my favorite color.”
“But Kate, it’s not safe, you going all those places alone. Out in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. You don’t know those people.” Kate hadn’t rolled her eyes, though she’s wanted to.
“I understand, Ryan. And it’s sweet that you’re worried, but this is an important part of my job and sometimes we have to do things we don’t necessarily want to do. Besides, I’ll be fine and it’s only one day.”
“You can call me,” she said. “And I’ll call you, okay?” She’d done everything short of offering him a cookie and patting his hand.
The little diamond sparkled on her left ring finger. It was just two months old; a baby, really, in the world of jewelry, but already it was starting to seem like a permanent part of her. Sometimes she’d push it around so the diamond was on the underneath and it looked like a wedding band. The image made her stomach cramp. She tried it once a day, just to see if the feeling was starting to go away. Today it had been the worst yet and she’d thought about tossing the ring out the window and into the thick tangle of underbrush near her car.
She was supposed to be excited about doing this marriage thing, the wife thing then the baby thing. Everyone around her was getting married. Her high school boyfriend, Scott Anderson, had not long before married a girl named Rhonda Hoover who did hair at the Sit and Set, the beauty shop where Kate’s mother got her hair done. Her mother had just told her that Rhonda was pregnant and that “Her belly’s so big she can’t barely reach my head when she stands back behind that chair.” Kate’s mother was probably exaggerating, but she could picture it: Rhonda who’d always been tiny, now with a belly that reached out farther than her arms could. Kate knew it’d been her mother’s way of hinting that she’d like to see Kate that way, that it was about time for a grandbaby, but Kate had no intention of having kids anytime soon, if ever, and when Ryan brought up the subject, she’d find a way to change it.
Kate’d known Scott since they were kids and when they got together, it seemed natural. That was the thing about where she was from, you knew people forever. The boy who kissed you so hard your teeth ached was the same boy who threw up at the first grade Christmas party and ruined the gift exchange presents. The boy who took you to prom and later hung your plain white underpants on his rear view mirror, he was the same kid who cried when the class mouse died in the third grade.
There was a different kind of trust when you knew things like that about people, when you saw them as kids. There was no way to get that when you met someone in college, like how she met Ryan. Sure, she could visit his parents, see pictures of him as a little boy, but somehow it wasn’t enough. Ryan didn’t understand, even when she tried to explain to him how she felt like she didn’t really know him. “What are you talking about, Kate? You know me. We live together. You know me better than anyone.” He always thought it had something to do with insecurity, that she didn’t trust him or thought he was cheating, but that wasn’t it. It was something deeper that she couldn’t explain or even name, but she couldn’t get around the feeling that something important was missing. She couldn’t help thinking about Scott Anderson.
This visit belonged to Henry Rusnak, who she vaguely remembered from the Popsicle Social—the day all the incoming kindergartners came in to tour the school, play on the playground, and eat frozen flavored ice on a stick. She only vaguely remembered anything from that day because of Ryan, whom she’d brought along for the first time as her fiancé. At first, she’d liked the approving smiles from the other teachers. They all appreciated how he tried to help, how he volunteered to hand out popsicles to the kids in Kate’s class and then stood around talking with a few of the fathers. But then he wandered off, sat alone at a picnic table and fiddled with his cell phone. He made a call, text messaged, then played some game. She was so preoccupied watching him that she hadn’t paid any attention to the kids or the parents.
Afterward, in the car, she’d told him, “You didn’t even try. Couldn’t you have been a little bit friendlier?”
“I don’t know what you want from me, Kate,” he said, driving in that relaxed way with one hand on the steering wheel and the other out the window. She’d always found men driving to be sexy, their confident attention to both the road and to her as she sat in the passenger’s seat, but was irritating her irrationally and she wanted to scream at him to put both hands on the god-damned wheel. What she really wanted was to give him detention for his behavior.
“At least I didn’t ask Mrs. Hershowitz how her husband’s erectile dysfunction was coming along. Has she seemed any happier to you?” Ryan laughed, and Kate thought for the first time about throwing the engagement ring out into the corn field they were passing, but she didn’t, that day, or this one. She twisted the diamond back to the front of her hand and pushed out into the hot, heavy air.
The door creaked open a bit and she saw Henry’s head and shoulders emerge. She willed her feet to move.
“Hi, Henry. I’m Miss Cartwright. ” Henry stared but didn’t open the door any wider. He was cute, chilly blue eyes and blonde, blonde hair almost white from the sun. “Do you remember me?” He nodded but didn’t make a move and didn’t smile.
“Henry James,” a male voice, not deep, a little boyish, said from inside. “Open that door and let your teacher in.”
Henry did it, pushed the screen door a little towards Kate and then stepped back. “Thank you Henry,” she said. “You’ve grown since the Popsicle Social. Have you had a good summer?” Henry shrugged. She had him pegged already. A sulker. Didn’t want to come to school because he’d rather be out thrashing through the woods, or playing video games, or maybe riding a four-wheeler. He’d come around though. These were the boys who usually liked to hug her by the end of the year.
“Hi, there,” the voice said again. Henry’s father came around the bar that separated the living room from the kitchen, wiping his hands on his jeans. He wasn’t a tall man, but slim, with the same shock of white-blond hair and blue eyes as Henry. He was wearing jeans and a tucked-in t-shirt, a brown leather belt and work boots, even in summer, even inside. He was so familiar to Kate that she could have named him; he was every boy she’d gone to high school with, every teenage crush she’d ever had, hometown boy she’d dated.
“I’m Henry’s dad, Jeremy,” he said and held out his hand to her.
“Of course.” Of course his name was Jeremy. It could have just as easily been Brian or Scott or Patrick. Those were the names of the boys in her class, the multiples who had to be Scott A or Patrick W depending on their last name. Jeremy was the most popular, though—four in her class alone. For girls it was Kelly or Kerry or Amanda. It wasn’t like that anymore. People were looking for “original” names. Last year she’d had an unfortunate child named Tequila Sunrise who looked mean, as mean as a kindergartener could look, and only wanted to use the brown crayon to make art.
She took this Jeremy’s hand and was surprised at how cool it was; the trailer was buzzing with the sound of a window air conditioner but was still warm and Kate felt heated from the inside out.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you at that Popsicle thing they had out at the school,” he motioned for her to sit in the recliner. He himself sat on the sofa—brown, maroon flower pattern—and Henry dropped down next to him, crossed his arms, and put his muddy tennis shoes up on the coffee table. Jeremy shot the boy a warning look, and Henry dropped his feet to the floor.
“I had to work, so Henry’s grandparents brought him out. They help us a lot, don’t they buddy?” Jeremy put his hand down deep into Henry’s hair and pushed it around a little. Henry just continued to scowl at Kate, his eyes a million years old, like they could see right through her.
“And where it is you work?” she asked. Being nosey was the biggest reason for doing these home visits—get in, dig as much dirt as you can, get out before they even knew what hit them. This was a chance to figure out something about the kid before he was sitting in her classroom every day, eating paste or pinching the girl in front of him.
She asked about the job, but what she really wanted to know was where was the Amanda or Kelly of this house. Where was Henry’s mom?
“I work over at the lumber yard right now, but I’m taking night classes to get my electrician’s license. Henry and I don’t get too awful much time together, but hopefully that’ll change real soon, when I get done with the classes and all. I’ll be here when he gets home from school, for a couple hours, so I’ll be able to help him with his homework some and his grandma can help him with the rest.”
“Your parents watch Henry then? When you’re at work?” Jeremy nodded. “You’ll want to make sure to note that on Henry’s emergency form, so that if he gets sick in school, we’ll have the right number to call.” That was a good teacherly thing to say. “I have all that paper work here for you.”
“First, I’d like to go over some school rules, Henry, if that’s okay?” She did the program, went through the classroom policies, which she would spend most of the first two or three weeks of class repeating, over and over. She quickly mentioned the schedule for special classes (art Monday, PE Tuesday, music Wednesday, etc) and told Henry a few of the things he’d be learning before the end of the year. She also made sure to highlight fun things, like the Christmas program and graduation. Nothing impressed Henry. He was one of those spooky kids who knew things, had seen things, and he’d be watching her all year.
“Well, I have a few more items I need to discuss with you, Mr. Rusnak, but Henry can go play if he wants,” Kate said. Jeremy was starting to look weary, maybe overwhelmed.
“Can I go play Xbox, Dad?” Henry asked, really the first thing spoken since the visit started. Kate thought she noticed a slight lisp, but couldn’t be sure. He’d probably need speech class.
“Sure, buddy, go ahead. Come back out when your teacher is leaving, so you can say good-bye.” Henry shot back towards his room. “I’m sorry about how he’s acting,” Jeremy said. “He’s not too happy about starting school. He’s a good kid, but he’d rather run the woods with his pap all day.”
“Understandable,” Kate said and smiled. She felt much better now that the boy was gone, and noticed again how good looking Jeremy was. It wasn’t in that slick, conventional way, but in a way that reminded her of outside, of sun on a face. She could guess what he smelled like—some cheapish cologne like Old Spice or Stetson, strong and manly. Ryan wore some sort of Calvin Klein stuff that came in a frosted white bottle. She’d almost accidentally sprayed it on herself more than once.
“You’re probably wondering about his mom,” Jeremy said suddenly, just as Kate was preparing to launch into an uncomfortable discussion about snack days and the school supplies Henry would need. Those things involved money and parents almost always tensed up when money was involved.
“You should know, in case it ever comes up in class. She’s not in the picture. Left out of here when Henry was three. She wasn’t meant to be a mom, and that’s okay. Henry and I do fine and my parents help where they can.” Kate nodded. “If the other kids are ever doing anything for their moms, Henry’ll just do it for his grandma. He and me, we’ve already talked about it. He’s a smart kid, knows how it is.”
“Okay.” Jeremy looked like a load had been lifted. Now that the hard thing was said, he looked more relaxed. “So, snack days? What do we bring, like cupcakes or something?” Kate smiled. They finished talking about the importance of nutritional snacks and other parent responsibilities.
“All right,” Kate said, looking at the stack of papers she’d placed on the coffee table between herself and Jeremy and going through her mental checklist. “I think the only thing left to talk about then is the learning activities. There are a few little things—helpful tools—the kindergarten teachers like to give parents so they can help their children at home. Are you open to that?”
“Sure. Of course.” Kate fished in her bag and took out the prepared baggies of sight words on index cards and the complementary book—Little Giraffe’s First Day of School—that the PTA sent for each kid. “Do you mind?” She asked and pointed to the sofa. She took her bag and moved next to him.
“These are the first words Henry will be expected to know,” she said, handing him the baggy. “They’re the most common words like the and we. Just go over them with him for a few minutes every night.” She then handed him the book and the PTA newsletter for new parents. The PTA also sent along a form for the parents to fill out, asking about interest in attending meetings, availability to volunteer at the school, and questions about heavy equipment or other helpful things the parents might have access to that could beautify their child’s school. Brighton Elementary had one of the most aggressive PTAs in the state. They struck parents hard and fast, baited them in with a free book and the promise of spring carnivals, then hit them up with fundraisers, school photos and year books, and requests for backhoes and snow blowers.
Jeremy was looking over the letter. Kate noticed how his eyebrows (light blond like his hair) knitted in towards his nose.
“In addition to starting to read and learning basic math, we’ll also be focusing on time and currency,” she said, gently taking the letter from his hands. “You can use your own money to help Henry practice recognizing the coins, but we like to have parents make a clock with the child, so that he can hold it and manipulate the hands himself.” Kate pulled a paper plate from her bag and handed it to Jeremy. She’d been making these all day with mothers, watching polished nails push brass fasteners through the plate to hold on the flimsy, construction paper hands. This was her first father though, and Jeremy looked perplexed. He turned the plate over and over as if there were directions on the back, or like inspiration was suddenly going to come to him. She smiled and handed him a black permanent marker.
“Put the numbers around the front, just like on a clock face,” Kate told him. She watched as he painstakingly wrote the numbers in that distinctly male hand. Jeremy’s numbers were thin and shaky, no curly end on the two, no smiley face in the zero of the ten.
Kate was thinking about Scott Anderson. When they were in school, he drove a farm use truck and she’d often go bumping along the side roads with him, the truck smelling warm and dirty. Sometimes he’d let her drive, even though she was just 15 and didn’t have her license. He’d never take his eyes off her as she drove, telling her to go faster, faster, kicking up the dust, until finally she’d break hard in the road, tires skidding, leaving them both breathless and laughing. He had a Skoal ring in his back pocket and tasted like minty long cut. All summer they’d run the dirt roads, sometimes talking for hours about everything and anything, sometimes never saying a single word. The future was something indefinable, unimportant. Scott never wanted to hold her back, tie her down. He knew her.
There was something through Jeremy’s eyes that reminded her a little of Scott, not so much the way they looked—Scott had brown eyes that crinkled at the corners and Jeremy’s were that icy blue—but in how they looked, how they focused in and concentrated, how they looked her right in the eye as she talked to him. “Like this?” Jeremy asked as he tried to manipulate the tiny black strips of construction paper she’d given him for clock hands. He had to first push the brass fasteners through the hands and then punch the fastener ends through the center of the plate. It was harder for him to do than the mothers with their thin, nimble fingers. His fingers were big, blunt at the ends.
“Just like that,” she said. He tore the second hand a little with the pointy end of the fastener, but she told him that was okay. “Later, you can make one with Henry. I’ve brought parts for another.” Kate placed a paper plate and a baggie with another fastener and hands on the coffee table.
“Are you sure Henry will be able to do this?” Jeremy was now battling the plate, trying to get the hands in the center. Everything was looking bent and messy; the hands were too far off to the right and would have a hard time ever making ten o’clock. “Does this look okay?”
“It looks great,” she lied. “And Henry will be fine with it. His fingers are littler. You’ll just have to give him direction. Have patience.”
“Yeah, I bet you got to have a lot of that in your job. You like it?” Jeremy gave up on the paper plate clock and tossed it to the stand.
“Sure,” she said. “I guess.” That didn’t sound too World’s Best Teacher. Normally she would tell the parents what they wanted to hear, how she loved her job, how she had always wanted to dedicate her life to teaching their little darlings. She wouldn’t let the doubt into her voice, or the boredom, or the fear that she was doing everything wrong or backward. But she felt like Jeremy was really asking; that he really wanted to know. “It’s not always fun,” she said. “I got bit once and still have a scar. Sometimes the kids get frustrating.”
“I do love it though,” she said, quickly backtracking. “It’s very rewarding, and it’s great being the person to introduce the kids to education. That’s so important.” There, that sounded more World’s Best. Maybe Jeremy would appreciate her initial honesty.
“So…is there anything else I should know?” Jeremy asked. She’d went through the program, told him all he needed to know to get Henry ready for the first day of kindergarten—Henry who was somewhere in the back of the trailer shooting zombies or stealing pixilated cars. She’d already spent more time here than she had at the other houses; she’d forgotten about wanting to get home, about Ryan’s constant calling. She’d even forgotten the heat since she’d moved over to the couch and was sitting next to Jeremy who did smell like Old Spice and faintly of something mechanical, like fuel or grease.
Kate wanted to tell him about how she dreamed of floods, thick brown water that would pick up a trailer and move it, make it a mobile home after all. It was a reoccurring dream she’d had since she was a kid. Before, she’d be in the trailer as it floated and bobbed, was swept downstream, and she’d look out the back window before waking up with panic in her heart. Lately though, she’d be standing where a backyard would have been and watch as home got further and further away. She’d try to chase it, but her feet wouldn’t move, mired down. When she’d look down to see what was holding her, she’d see Ryan, naked in the mud, half man and have earth, holding her ankles tight, pulling her down.
She might start by asking Jeremy how close that river was to them. Could it break its banks in a heavy rain? Could the violence of a flash flood push the trailer from its moorings?
She’d tried to talk to Ryan about the dreams, but he didn’t really understand. “So, was I trying to help you or kill you?” he’d asked. “Did I have legs or were my legs made of mud, like Swamp Thing? I’m sorry, Kate. I don’t get it.”
Kate didn’t get it either. She could only look at him desperately and hope he could understand something she couldn’t say; something that had to do with losing control, being caught up, something to do with losing.
Sometimes she woke up and the bed felt like it was moving, slowly as if in rising water; she’d shake Ryan awake. “It’s just a dream, Kate,” he’d say, not even opening his eyes. He’d pat her with a thick, sleep-drunk hand and roll over. Here she was, stranded on a bed in the middle of a black flood--of rising water--and he turned over. She’d shake him again and he’d swat her hand away. “Christ, Kate. Don’t be a child. Go to sleep.”
On the worst nights, she’d sit up, her back flat against the head board and her knees pulled up to her chest until the morning light came through the windows and turned the dirty and deadly black water back in to bedroom floor. Then Ryan would wake up, yawn, stretch and put his feet down as if the room hadn’t been a raging flood.
What would Scott or this Jeremy have told her if she’d said the floor had turned to water and she was afraid to get caught in it? He knew her; he’d understand and hold her. He wouldn’t tell her that her dream didn’t mean anything. He’d say he’d just been having the same one, but in his, the flood waters were receding, and home was coming back.
“Ms. Cartwright?” Jeremy was looking at her, his cool eyes questioning. “Are you okay?” Kate moved closer to him, put her hand on his leg. He looked down at it, confused. Hadn’t he realized everything since she walked in the door had been leading towards this?
She moved her face closer to his. She wanted to kiss him, to feel his rough lips on hers and remember.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. She moved closer to him still, waiting for him to make the move, to meet her. “I think you should go.” He backed away from her, and his voice wasn’t kind anymore.
“I—I’m sorry,” Kate stammered. She pushed her things down into her bag and stood up. She felt stricken, the heat rising back into her, burning. What had she done?
“Me too,” he was staring at her, judging, disapproving and disappointed. Kate knew she wasn’t the kind of girl he knew at all, and she sure as hell wasn’t the World’s Best anything.
Kate fumbled for the door knob. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she said, then mumbled something about the heat, confusion. She got out the door, finally. Maybe she could tell the school that she hadn’t been in her right mind. It was some fevered dream that over took her. She’d thought they both were someone else.
The air felt heavy and the sky had turned gray. She would get in her car and drive away. Tomorrow, she’d call and talk to the principal. If Jeremy hadn’t already called, she’d make up some lie to get Henry out of her class.
A storm was coming. After all the heat, it would be a big one, a violent release of built up electricity and she would be on the road, trying to see through the rain and find her way home. At the top of the long drive, she’d find her phone and call Ryan, Ryan who was trying as best he knew how. She’d call to let him know that she was still alive, but about to be caught in a downpour.