Nell Joslin: The Lesson

A child stood alone in the large foyer of a high-ceilinged home, chewing a lock of her hair. She was wearing a winter coat with the hood tied under her chin. On the floor beside her she had dropped several leaves of sheet music.

Leading off of the foyer were French doors whose panes were screened on the opposite side by white gauze curtains. From time to time a shadowy figure moved back and forth within the room inside, and there were sounds of a piano played haltingly, each note stout and independent, like the sound of a stone thrown into a tin pail. Every two or three dozen notes, a woman’s voice descended among them and lingered as the pianist continued.

The child Sally Ann approached a large mahogany chest against the wall, and, spreading her arms wide, opened the drawer that was shoulder-high. From underneath folded table linens and crocheted placemats, she removed a cellophane bag of butterscotch candies. The bag was about half full, and she carefully unrolled the opened end and counted out four gold-colored pellets before replacing the bag. One piece she unwrapped and put in her mouth; the rest went into the pocket of her coat. Crossing the room again, the child put the wrapper into a Chinese vase that stood near the front door. This vase was so large — nearly as tall as she was — that the candy wrappers from last week and the weeks before were lost in its dry, vinegary bottom.

On the other side of the curtained doors, the teacher’s voice rose and fell again, and after a short pause, the pianist began a new piece, this one with a boogie-woogie baseline. Sally Ann left the foyer and followed a short hallway that led into a dim, tiled kitchen. She opened the refrigerator. Removing the butterscotch candy from her mouth, she secured it to the sleeve of her coat, then took a few swallows from an open carton of orange juice. She examined the contents of a foil-covered package. Four chicken legs lay end to end. She picked one out and holding it in her teeth, returned the rest to the refrigerator and ate the chicken, wiping her mouth from time to time on the shoulder of her coat.

Back in the foyer, the boogie-woogie continued from behind the French doors. The child put the drumstick bone into the vase with the candy wrappers and approached the open doorway of a sitting room which led off from another side of the foyer. There an old woman lay on a sofa, propped on pillows and covered with a blue and white crocheted afghan. When she saw Sally Ann, the woman raised her head, slowly lifted her arm and pointed at her. Her forefinger was bowed into a sickle shape.

The child regarded the woman with calm interest. Without removing her gaze, she found the butterscotch candy on her sleeve and returned it to her mouth. Continuing to point, the old woman gave a yelp. Then she dropped her arm and folded her lips back and forth over her gums like the agitated mouth of a sock puppet.

Next to her, a low table was littered with magazines, water glasses, and a can of peanuts. A dapper peanut man with a top hat and cane lounged on the side of the can. Sally Ann considered the peanuts for a few moments, and then returned her gaze to the old woman. The girl walked around to the table and removed the lid from the peanuts.

“Want some?” Sally Ann held out the can. With her opposite hand, she made a small forward motion with her thumb in front of her lower lip. “Know what that means? It means ‘peanuts’. It’s for people who can’t talk, or who can’t hear. Now you can tell me when you want some.” She made the motion again. When the woman did not move, Sally Ann stepped closer. “Know what? I hate piano. I’m going to tell Miss Cheatham that today, but she won’t know what I’m saying. Like this.” She made a flicking motion with both hands, then briefly mimed playing the piano.

The old woman relaxed against the pillows. She regarded Sally Ann with eyes that moved back and forth as though she were reading the print on a page. Her hands fidgeted with the edge of the afghan.

“Someone colored your eyes wrong,” the child told her. “The part that’s s’posed to be white is yellow and the part that’s s’posed to be blue or brown is too light. Like silver.” She lidded the peanuts and returned the can to the table. “Guess you don’t want any of these. Hey, I know.” Sally Ann reached her hand into her coat pocket and pulled out one of the butterscotch candies and set it within reach of the old woman. “Trade ya. If you don’t want it, just make the ‘no’ sign. Like this.” She brought her thumb and first two fingers together in a broad pinching motion. “That means ‘no.’ I won’t care if you say it.”

The old woman lifted her head and pointed again at the girl’s chest. “C-o-oat.”

Sally Ann cocked her head to one side. “Coat?”

Behind the girl there came the sound of the heavy front door closing, and the child turned as a voice came from the doorway. “She wants to know, Sally Ann, why you haven’t taken off your coat.”

Miss Cheatham, the piano teacher, was not tall, but her torso was imposing. She wore her reading glasses on a gold chain around her neck and a mechanical pencil clipped to the front placket of her blouse. Her hair, which curled around her forehead and ears, had been dyed a pinkish-brown color, and about an inch of the natural gray showed on the temples and crown.

“And why haven’t you taken off your coat?”

Sally Ann was silent.

After a few moments, Miss Cheatham dropped her eyes and said, “Well, come now, it’s time for your lesson.” She turned and walked back toward the open door of the piano room. Beneath her skirt, her backside moved like two large round creatures struggling against each other.

Sally Ann edged toward the door, alongside the old lady’s couch. “Hey,” she whispered, nodding in the direction of the table. “Don’t forget your butterscotch.”

“C-o-oat.”

“Do this.” Sally Ann made a two-handed gesture of adjusting a coat over her own shoulders. “That means coat.”

In the studio, she sat in front of the grand piano on a stool that looked like the saddle of a circus elephant.

“I’m going to insist that you take your coat off,” Miss Cheatham said. “There’s no reason for this. It’s perfectly warm in here, and if you don’t take it off, you’ll be cold when you go back outside. For someone in the fourth grade, you just don’t show much sense sometimes.”

Sally Ann sat with her arms hanging down on either side of the stool, and looked at her teacher with her mouth open. This expression made her face look dull, like a light had been turned off behind her eyes. She made the flicking motion with her hands, and then a brief imitation of playing the piano.

Miss Cheatham’s brows came together in a way that made her eyes seem very close to each other. When she was angry, her features gathered together as though someone were pulling closed the drawstring of a bag, giving her face a peculiar, pointed look. Sally Ann watched this happen with her mouth still slightly open. A bead of saliva dangled from her lower lip.

“Honestly. I don’t know why you can’t shut your mouth when you’re talking to me.” Miss Cheatham fidgeted. “When I’m talking to you. And you don’t need to use that sign language here. I’m perfectly able to understand whatever you say. My hearing has always been excellent.” She came forward and jerked the bow out of Sally Ann’s hood strings, then roughly unbuttoned the coat. “Now take that thing off. We are using valuable lesson time.”

Sally Ann drew off her coat without standing up, and let it fall so that it formed a skirt around the edges of the stool. A butterscotch candy dropped from the pocket and rolled under the foot pedals.

“You will not touch my piano with those hands. Go and wash them. And bring your music in from the foyer. For heaven’s sake.”

Sally Ann carefully closed the curtained door behind her, and went over to pick up her music from the floor. For several long moments she stood chewing on her hair again and thinking about her coat that was inside the studio, lying on the floor beside the piano stool. She glanced into the opposite room and saw the old woman propped against the pillows, her eyes closed. Without any particular stealth, the girl went to the front door. The door was heavy, with a stiff, reluctant doorknob. Sally Ann put one foot against the jamb and pulled. The door lunged toward her just before the knob came off in her hand. Without hesitation, she dropped the knob into the vase with the chicken bone and the candy wrappers, where it fell with a brassy clank. Sally Ann saw the old woman turn her head to stare at her. Her folded-over mouth began working, and her expression hovered between glee and terror.

“C-o-oat!”

Sally Ann waved to her, and ran through the doorway and down the front steps into the winter afternoon, not stopping to close the door behind her.

***

Miss Cheatham licked the end of her pencil and opened her day-by-day calendar. Thank goodness this was her last pupil of the day. Although she knew that she should have tolerance for Sally Ann because of her home situation, she disliked the child. She disliked her not because the girl lied about how much she practiced – nearly every pupil did that – but because the girl gave her a sense of being invaded and misunderstood. Whenever she spoke to Sally Ann, she felt as though the child were sizing her up, like an audience member sizes up a stage performance. In turn, Sally Ann rarely spoke to her teacher, though she sometimes responded in sign language. Miss Cheatham had the feeling that Sally Ann knew she did not enjoy teaching piano. Well, why should she enjoy it? She, Geraldine Cheatham, who had won six blue ribbons on her Tennessee walking horse, Folly Source–she, whose father had been a city councilman, now had to teach piano, suffer the likes of Sally Ann Jorgensen, and take care of Mother. Mother should be taking care of her. She thought of her slender, seventeen-year-old self photographed in jodhpurs beside Folly Source and groped in the sleeve of her sweater for a crumpled tissue to dab her eyes.

It was best to think about a simple thing. A concrete thing, immutable and comforting. Miss Cheatham donned her glasses and had just written “ginger ale” in the margin of her calendar when she heard a clanking sound from the foyer. She thought vaguely of crockery knocking against itself. What could Mother be up to? Then she heard her mother’s voice, a thin rising bleat, and remembered Sally Ann. A clotted ball of rage formed in her throat and chest. Miss Cheatham’s reading glasses fell from her nose, hit the end of their chain and bounced silently onto the mattress of her bosom. She snatched at the knob of the studio’s French door and staggered as the door flew forward and hit her on the forehead. Gusts of freezing air filled the foyer. Old Mrs. Cheatham had cast aside her afghan and was struggling to push herself up with both hands.

“Mother, what are you doing? Where is Sally Ann?” Miss Cheatham shut the front door and hastened across the foyer to her mother. One of the combs had fallen from old Mrs. Cheatham’s head, and hair hung down along one side of her face in a greasy arc. Red splotches had risen on her cheeks and neck, and her mouth folded in and out with feverish energy. A moist disk of butterscotch candy rested on the yoke of her flannel nightgown.

Miss Cheatham took her mother by the shoulders and twisted her back down onto the couch. “Mother, don’t you dare get up. You’ll fall, and I can’t lift you.”

The old woman reached up and pinched the skin on her daughter’s forearm, then twisted it. Her eyes glittered with excitement and hatred.

“Mother, stop it! Where is Sally Ann?”

Her mother reached toward Miss Cheatham’s face and pinched her again, this time on the cheek, digging the thick crescents of her fingernails into the flesh. Miss Cheatham let out a screech and thrust her mother away. The old woman collapsed backward at an awkward angle and toppled off the couch. The back of her head bounced onto the carpet, and she came to rest with her nightgown tangled around her thin body.

“C-o-oat,” the old woman said, closing her eyes. “C-o-oat.”

***

Sally Ann’s mother, Francine Jorgensen, had first known Miss Cheatham through the big Episcopal church they both attended downtown. Francine had suffered partial hearing loss from chronic ear infections in childhood, and she now worked part-time at the church doing sign-language for Sunday services. During the week she was a speech pathologist at the Westminster School for the Hearing Impaired. Francine wore a hearing aid, yet spoke with only a trace of the thickened consonants of the deaf.

Sally Ann’s father, Andre, a florid, hearty man, was a financial advisor whom Francine had met when he handled investments for the deaf school. He had been drawn by her neat, brown-haired prettiness; she, by his naturally loud voice and aura of prosperity. His hybrid name, Andre Jorgensen, seemed to ground him across a diverse background. In college he had been a Latin scholar, and during their married life, he liked to devise Latin nicknames. He sometimes called Francine “Fida,” which she hated upon learning it was the feminine of “Fido.” After Sally Ann was born, he said that her initials really stood for “Semper Adorata.”

One winter morning shortly after Sally Ann’s second birthday, a policeman came to the door just as Francine and the baby were about to leave the house. He asked if he could come in, and as the baby fussed in her hooded snowsuit in the warm living room, the policeman told Francine that Andre’s body had been found by a jogger an hour earlier in a wooded area along a creek on the edge of town. Andre had shot himself in the head.

The policeman was kind and soft-spoken. “Can I call someone for you, ma’am? I don’t want to leave you alone.” Francine gave him the number of the deaf school, and he went into the hallway to call one of her colleagues. She removed Sally Ann’s snowsuit and her own coat, and allowed the child to play with her purse while she waited in heaviness.

That morning Andre had risen and dressed in the dark, and when she came downstairs he was already buttoning his coat and picking up his keys. He had moved to leave as she crossed the kitchen in her bathrobe. “Can you take Sally Ann to daycare today? I have an early meeting.”

She opened the refrigerator and then turned to look at him. “There’s no coffee cream. Did you forget it?”

“Francine, can you take Sally Ann?” Andre enunciated each word as though addressing someone who was more half-witted than deaf. He was wearing a red cashmere scarf she had never seen before. Folded across his neck beneath his dark overcoat, it spoke of care and importance.

She turned from him and opened the bag of coffee. “I thought you were getting cream.” A few seconds later, the back door closed. Andre passed the window, and the light from the kitchen fell briefly across the fleshy planes of his face.

Francine looked down at her lap as the policeman returned to the living room. I am a widow, she thought. When I heard, I was wearing my apricot sweater.

The next day, a postcard came in the mail, addressed to Sally Ann in her father’s handwriting. It was one of those blank postal service-issue cards, without a photo. On the vacant side, Andre had drawn a heart around a sketch of two hand signs: a fist with the thumb furled for “S” and another fist with the thumb straight up for “A.” At the bottom, he had written in small careful letters, Fluctuat nec mergitur.

No suicide note was found. In the days that followed, Francine discovered that Andre had leveraged his stock portfolio to cover nearly a million dollars in gambling losses. She had to use her own savings to bury him. One day, a few weeks after the funeral, she found a Latin phrase book in the public library and thumbed through it till she located the one Andre had written on the card. She stood reading the translation over and over before closing the book and returning it to its shelf. She is buffeted about by waves but is not overcome.

Francine decided not to reveal the circumstances of Andre’s death to Sally Ann. Perhaps one day, later, when the child was grown, the time would be right. She put the postcard and her apricot sweater in a shoebox on the top shelf of her closet. In time, Francine began showing Sally Ann a photo of her father and saying that he had had a heart attack.

She soon realized that withholding the truth about Andre had opened a distance between them. If only Sally Ann had not resembled her father so strongly, with the same topaz-colored eyes and soft light-brown hair that grew in an asymmetrical widow’s peak. Francine dreaded the day she would have to tell her, because she knew that Sally Ann would blame her for the secrecy, and then blame her for the suicide.

The girl kept the photo of her father in her room. Her memories of him, if they could be called that, were connected with certain smells. Wet wool. Shoe polish. And hot, sweet kitchen smells, for she knew that he had liked to make candy at home, especially toffee or peanut brittle.

Sally Ann had a succession of babysitters, usually teen-aged girls from the deaf school, and she soon became proficient at signing. On piano day, one sitter or another was supposed to meet her at Miss Cheatham’s and walk her home. Unknown to her mother, however, Sally Ann gave most of her allowance to have the sitter meet her at home instead. She felt too old to walk with a babysitter. And that was not the only secret. The sitters were supposed to monitor a half-hour of piano practice every afternoon, but Sally Ann made a trade with them. Instead, she went outside and played in the neighborhood, and the sitters were glad to spend the time watching TV or writing notes to their friends, which they folded into tight little triangles for hand delivery at school the next day.

Sally Ann had a friend in the neighborhood named Skeeter McGilvray, a boy of fourteen who lived in the next block and had a paper route. She took note of him when someone told her he didn’t have a father. One bright autumn day, Sally Ann had happened by as Skeeter was preparing his newspapers for afternoon delivery. She stood a few feet away and watched as he pulled a newspaper from a large bundle and quickly folded it several times into a three-cornered disk shape.

“Hey,” she said.

Skeeter looked up from his task and nodded briefly. His face had a peculiar washed-out look, and she remembered that he was known for having pulled out his eyelashes.

“I can help with that.” She came closer, and after a few moments, when he said nothing, she drew a newspaper from the bundle. He slowed down so she could copy his way of folding.

“Not bad,” he said, when she presented her handiwork. “But it’s got to be tighter than that. Else it’s a mess when you throw it. It’s shit pickup if they aren’t tight and neat.” He looked at her face when he said the bad word, but she gave no reaction except to reach for another newspaper.

They worked in silence for a few more minutes, Skeeter folding three or four papers to each of Sally Ann’s. When they finished, he silently stowed the papers into a canvas shoulder satchel, and took off on his bike.

After that, Sally Ann tried to be there each afternoon to help Skeeter with the folding. Sometimes, when he rode off on his bicycle, Sally Ann would run along behind him for a block or so, but the distance between them always grew longer until he disappeared.

One day Skeeter told Sally Ann that he had taken the route so that he could buy the kind of shoes that boys at his school wore, expensive basketball shoes that his mother refused to pay for. When Sally Ann asked him did he play basketball, he looked annoyed and spoke no more that afternoon.

Skeeter knew a lot of things. One day in December he helped her collect sweet-gum balls from the ground, and brought a box of toothpicks to make Christmas stars by sticking them in the holes of the balls. When her mother refused to let her put the sweet-gum stars on their tree, Sally Ann kept them in her room in a brown paper grocery bag. Skeeter also taught her how to rub a person’s forearm until the hair was bunched up in little knots, or to twist the skin in two directions for an Indian sunburn.

In return, she taught him how to hand-sign his name, using the spiraling sign for “mosquito.” He liked that one. Then she taught him her name, the initials SA, easy because the S and A were so much alike. Just move the thumb over across your fist.

***

Miss Cheatham’s neighborhood was older than Sally Ann’s, and her house was on a hill. The driveway led steeply down to a street flanked with broad-waisted oak trees whose roots had long since split and shuffled the concrete sidewalks. The houses partook of a common genealogy, and their thick walls and wide porches had settled in to bear their slate roofs for at least another hundred years. Miss Cheatham’s house was not rundown, exactly, but it looked unfresh and unloved. The steps and walkway were littered with leaves and small dead branches, and gangly boxwoods tested the boundaries on either side of the driveway.

On this particular winter day of Sally Ann’s lesson, Miss Cheatham’s neighbors might have seen Sally Ann Jorgensen come running down the driveway much too fast for such a steep slope. They might have seen her music fly from her arms and leave a trail. And they might have seen Sally Ann fall forward onto the concrete, two thirds of the way down the hill.

But no one saw Sally Ann. No one saw her fall forward and slide on her forearms and the side of her face. So after a moment, when she picked herself up and examined her hands and arms, she did not cry. There was no one to cry for.

She was not badly hurt, but the skin on the heels of her palms and the soft underside of her forearms was scraped raw. One of the sleeves of her white shirt was ripped to the elbow, and on both, blood seeped into the fabric like pulpy juice through a sieve. Red liquidy scratches like claw marks lengthened on the side of her face, and she touched her cheek and examined her fingers, then licked them and touched her face again.

Looking back, Sally Ann saw her music littering the driveway. Shit pickup, she thought. She decided not to consider what her mother was going to say about first leaving her lesson and her overcoat, and now leaving her music. She would have time to think of something good to tell her. Sally Ann reached for the closest booklet and started to tear a page out, then turned several leaves over to a piece called “The Tooth Brushing Song.” “Play three times each day” was written across the top in Miss Cheatham’s handwriting. Sally Ann tore this page out and applied it to the side of her face, then looked with a satisfied expression at the smear of blood on the black printed notes. She balled up the sheet and threw it into the boxwood hedge.

The afternoon was very cold. She found that she could still run, although soreness in one knee made her lopsided. Several blocks away, Miss Cheatham’s street emptied into a larger one. Sally Ann pushed the button for the light and hugged herself, being careful to overlap her forearms to cover up her bloody shirt as much as possible. As she waited, she looked to her left at the oncoming cars. The light changed, and across the street the little image of a green walking man flashed in its electric box above the curb.

Before Sally Ann could enter the crosswalk, a car pulled off the road into the entrance of the filling station on the corner. The passenger window drew down, releasing the sound of a radio turned up too loud. Two almost-grown boys were in the front seat. The one driving wore a baseball cap turned around the wrong way, and was tapping on the steering wheel in time to the music.

The front-seat boy on her side turned the volume down and then leaned his head out the window toward her. She took a step backward. He was looking at her as grownups often did–that is, as though she was not able to see him. His face was loose and unfinished-looking. From the window came warm air and a faintly meaty smell, a boy smell. A third boy, sitting in the back seat, glanced at her through the glass, and then turned to face the front again.

Sally Ann’s face grew bright. “Hey Skeeter,” Sally Ann called to him. “Skeeter, hey.” She made the mosquito sign at the car window. Skeeter glanced at her again, expressionless, and silently raised his hand in a brief wave.

The front-seat boy rested his arm on the ledge of his window. He removed a large spherical lollipop from his mouth and pointed it at her. “Well, whaddaya know, it’s Skeeter’s little friend, looking kinda beat up this afternoon. Did she get hurt helping you with your paper route, Skeet? Did you drag her behind you on your bike?”

Sally Ann put her hands on her hips. “For your information, stupid, I was walking this lady’s dog and it pulled me down. A German shepherd.”

Skeeter reached over the top of the seat and shoved his companion’s shoulders. “Cut it out, Liver. Leave her alone.”

Sally Ann’s face reflected a surge of comprehension. “Hey, I know who you are,” she said. “You must be Bobo Liver. Skeeter told me about you. Your real name’s Bob Oliver. Skeeter talks about you sometimes.”

Liver gave a short, hard laugh. “Well, little old Skeet’s finally got himself a girlfriend. A bloody, beatup girlfriend. And she’s so hot, she don’t even need a coat. OK, Miss Priss, if you know so much, lemme ask you this. Have you ever ridden on a cock?”

Sally Ann began to speak, but then shook her head and took another step backward. She started to make the hate sign, but at that moment her foot hit an uneven seam in the sidewalk, and she stumbled and fell to a sitting position on the pavement. Inside the car, Skeeter shoved Liver again from behind, and Liver turned around and elbowed him away with a sharp jabbing motion as the car lurched forward into the filling station.

Liver leaned out his window, a rubbery grin on his face. “Uh oh, Skeeter just told me,” he called. “He wants to put his hands in your pants.”

Sally Ann did not wait for the light to change again, but ran halfway across the street, stood still on the yellow line while a car passed from the other direction, and then ran the rest of the way to the opposite side. An oncoming car gave a long angry honk behind her just as she reached the curb, but she did not turn or stop, and her uneven canter took her the few blocks left to her house.

Sally Ann found the key under the mat and let herself in. Since she had left her lesson early, the sitter had not yet arrived. The house was warm, but she found her Sunday coat in the hall closet and put it on. In the kitchen, she found a pot in the dish drainer and set it on the stove with a half-stick of butter from the refrigerator and the contents of the sugar bowl.

When the butter was melted, she got a wooden spoon and took the pot into the dining room. She sat at the table and took off her coat, letting it fall around her. She remembered that this was the second time that afternoon that she had taken off a coat this way. The pot warmed her hands as she ate from the gold-colored mixture. She met her own eyes in the long mirror on the opposite wall and made the coat sign. There were dark red stains on the forearms of her shirt. She turned her head from side to side to examine the scratches on her face. She put the spoon back in the pot and made the SA sign to herself. Fist, move the thumb, fist, move the thumb. SA. SA. SA.



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