Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Polynomials

 

 

It is simple, she thinks. There is something that connects you to the mysteries of the world, something like touching an ear to a closed door. It is even enjoyable, if she is honest, when Mr. Hahn goes on about polynomials in algebra, as though he is speaking in a language as indecipherable as tongues. Years earlier, before high school, a girl on her block—a fat-faced third-grader named Vickie Morrison—was run over by a school bus and later died. Allison had never much cared for her neighbor, had never played stick horses with her or had gone to her birthday parties—even though she was invited—but once the girl was in the San Marcos City Cemetery, she was someone you had to pay attention to and could feel around you at school or on the block, a physical presence far more than she had ever been in life. There were even times when Allison was nearing sleep when she would hear that squeaky, obnoxious voice in her ear, would imagine the heavy footsteps rushing behind her, as though the girl were planning to ask her once more to go bike riding or to play dolls. The world had no obligation to make sense, Allison knew, no interest in coming up with rational explanations, and she was fine with that. She wasn’t one of those people who insisted that everything had to be laid out in perfect straight lines. If the universe had its secrets, she embraced them.

 

Until now. Now she was in high school, and there was a chain-link fence at the edge of baseball field where a certain group of boys always seemed to be leaning at the day’s end, smoking. Her high school was large enough that you didn’t necessarily know everyone else’s name, though she did know the name of the one boy, Drew Childress, who had dark stringy hair and close-set eyes that made him seem foul-tempered, even mean. Always he was punching the arms of his friends as she walked past, or spitting into the dirt, or calling out to the girls he found attractive or ugly, always something crude and embarrassing. He was a senior, she knew, a delinquent in the eyes of his teachers and Principal Vasquez, thoroughly despised, and once while brushing past him in the hallway by the cafeteria she noticed that he smelled, his body odor as powerful as a stagnant pond congealing in summer with a green skin. In her dreams that night his hands kept coming toward her, and they were smeared with dirt, and his breath was like the stench of a barnyard against her neck and lips, and his voice was the same one that accosted her sometimes while she was walking past the baseball field on the way to where the school buses were waiting, their yellow bodies gleaming in the Texas sun.

 

“My nine-year-old sister has bigger titties than you,” he called out one time. “It would be like doing a little boy.”

 

There was a place Allison always studied while riding home on the bus, three houses down from her own, a spot on the road in front of where the Morrison family once lived in their green ranch house, and where Vickie had died. Over the years Allison had sometimes wondered if it were possible to listen to the thoughts of the dead. Her family was Baptist, and one of her favorite passages from the Bible was Psalm 108, which began, “O God, my heart is fixed.” What a strange line, she always thought. Sometimes she imagined that “fixed” was like with a dog or cat, and other times she figured that it implied that the heart was broken before but had been healed, or maybe it meant that the heart was motionless in place, paralyzed. She liked how the words rolled off the tongue and filled her thoughts, the way Vickie had been filling her thoughts for so many years, this little girl who had followed her and had pestered her to be a friend. The memory made Allison think about Bible Study and how words sometimes sounded as impenetrable as Mr. Hahn’s variables and coefficients, yet there was something holy in them nonetheless, something uplifting in their uncertainty.

 

Another unknown in Allison’s life was how she’d been saddled with her particular set of parents and two younger brothers. Her brothers were stupid and gross, and her father worked the night shift for a packaging plant in town, slept during the day. Her mother taught fifth grade at Bowie Elementary and was as fat as Vickie Morrison had been, and even looked a little like her in the puffiness of her face and the waddle of her walk. Back when Vickie was alive, Allison’s mother would sometimes tell her daughter she should play with the child as a form of charity, that it wasn’t the girl’s fault she was so unpopular. One time, in fact, Vickie had been invited to join the family to go tubing in the San Marcos River, and the day had been humiliating. The girl was almost too fat for the inner tube, and she never wanted to stray more than a few feet away from where Allison was floating or wading or sunbathing. She even asked at one point if they were now friends, words she still heard sometimes in her dreams, whispered like a wraith in her ear, as persistent as vultures circling and circling overhead.

 

“Do you want to go into the woods with me?” Drew called out one day while Allison ducked down her head walking past. He added, “I’ll show you something. I’ll even let you touch it.”

 

At night she sometimes dreamed of both Vickie and the boy, as though they were taking turns with their whispering. She dreamed that Drew took her hand and pushed it down his pants, holding her wrist in place. In the dream her fingers gripped something as unknown as the moonlight at night slipping through a bedroom window, something as palpable as noon heat. Once, at band camp, she had touched a boy there—his name was Freddie Marshall—until the features on his face had begun to writhe and the thing she was holding expelled a sudden warm wetness. That last part surprised her so much that she had removed her hand at once, but later she had replayed the events as though they were a kind of prophecy or prayer, not unlike the sounds of voices rising each Sunday at church. There was a question she pondered from time to time. Did God listen to prayers or simply let them wash over Him like waves, experience them like wind blowing against your face, visceral but without meaning, formless.

 

In her dreams most nights the boys—though mostly Drew—laughed as she walked past, though sometimes she took them into the woods, reached down into their pants one by one, held them like thrashing fish. And sometimes she dreamed of the accident again, worrying it like a missing tooth. She remembered being on the bus and seeing Vickie waddle off of it, waving at everyone as she stood on the lawn to her house. But then in the dream Allison noticed that Vickie had left her Little Mermaid plastic lunch box on the bus. Vickie must have realized it, too, for she started running back just at the moment as the bus was pulling away from the curb. Vickie had dirty brown hair that always looked like she’d forgotten to wash it, and it flew wildly around her puffy face. The bus driver, meanwhile, was peering over his left shoulder to make certain there wasn’t any traffic coming his way. His name was Mr. Upton, and he had a goiter on his neck that Allison found grotesquely fascinating. Fat Vickie reached out to knock on the bus to be let back in, but somehow she knocked on the front of the bus instead of the side. The most memorable moment of Allison’s life, she sometimes imagined, was the bump they felt after Vickie was knocked down. Then there was the screeching of the brakes, the whoosh of the bus doors coming open, and Mr. Upton rushing down the steps and screaming for help.

 

“Did it hurt?” Allison sometimes asked Vickie in a dream.

 

“I don’t know,” Vickie said.

 

“You don’t know or don’t want to say?”

 

“I’m not sure.”

 

“It must have hurt.”

 

“Maybe.”

 

In algebra class one day, Allison began to wonder if she maybe she was in love with Drew Childress. Why else would she walk by him? Would it be that hard to take the long way to where the buses were parked? She tried to imagine asking Drew to be her boyfriend, inviting him over to her house to meet her parents, but she knew it would be grotesque, unthinkable. He actually had a missing tooth, right near the front. He was vulgar in a way she couldn’t bear, and yet she imagined undressing before him, letting him study her nakedness. She imagined his hands violating her in ways she couldn’t stomach, rough and inconsiderate. It was while in the shower that she sometimes thought of him that way, and she closed her eyes and remembered the words from Psalm 10: “Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? Why hidest thyself in times of trouble?”

 

Some days at school Allison liked to imagine she was a ghost—perhaps she was the one the bus had bumped over—imagine that no one could see her as she sat in her classroom desk, inhaling chalk dust, listening to Mr. Hahn go on about things that were simultaneously unknowable and boring, the way heaven must grow weary eventually, if only because of how bright everything was, how impossibly shiny.

 

“I bet you’re a real slut when you get at it,” Drew called out as she went past. “I bet you’re a moaner.”

 

“You shut up,” she said.

 

“I bet you can’t get enough.”

 

“You’re vile,” she said.

 

“Come a little closer and I’ll show you.”

 

“You disgust me.”

 

One night she dreamed that Drew was calling his insults to Vickie—who was still a little girl, as though death fixes you—calling out all kinds of things he wanted to do to her various fat folds, and Vickie, as always, seemed flattered though uneasy by the attention, as though there were some trick she didn’t see.

 

“He smells even worse than you do,” Allison said to her in the dream.

 

“I smell?” she asked.

 

“Because you’re dead.”

 

“You’re mean,” Vickie said.

 

“The bus ran you over. Don’t you remember?”

 

“You don’t want to play with me?”

 

“The dead don’t know how to play.”

 

“I should have left my lunch box,” she said. “I would still be alive.”

“You can’t know that,” Allison said. “Dead is dead.”

 

“Why is that boy saying those things?”

 

“It’s because of what he has between his legs.”

 

Then Allison slapped Vickie in the dream, and Vickie went running home, and the bus bumped and Allison awoke to morning light, hating Vickie once again, hating her the way she had hated her in life—though who could say why?—hating her the way she hated Drew Childress, who was the one who ought to be run over by a bus, who ought to have the bump across his body, who ought to lie still in the road. She was furious at them now, and it was a wonderful fury. She remembered being told once by Pastor Collins that scripture was divinely revealed, which had seemed such an unknowable statement that Mr. Hahn might have been lecturing again about polynomials, and she had repeated the words again and again, tasting them on her tongue, and it occurred to her now as she started to dress for school, as she looked at herself in the bathroom mirror, that everything was fine now, that her life was fine, and she was happy, ecstatic with the fire of fury that consumed her, this wonderful distaste for a dead fat girl who still wouldn’t leave her alone, and a boy with a mouth like dirt.

 

 

 

Doug Ramspeck’s most recent book, Original Bodies, was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is published by Southern Indiana University Press. Two earlier books also received awards: Mechanical Flies (Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize) and Black Tupelo Country (John Ciardi Prize). Individual poems have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Slate, Southern Review and Georgia Review. Stories have appeared in Iowa Review, Southwest Review, Green Mountains Review, Gargoyle and others. He is a two-time recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award and teaches creative writing at The Ohio State University at Lima.