Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Hand You're Dealt

Before we get into today's short story, a bit of business. As you know, I started this blog in 2009 to provide - what I hope is - a nice writing community and a safe place to share unpublished work. 99.9% of you are wonderful! But, sadly, I need to reinforce the Advisory and Submission Guidelines on the side panel of the blog for some of you, and also add some new rules:

1) Submissions can't be more than 1500 words. No exceptions. 
2) All genres of fiction and creative nonfiction are considered. Just nothing vulgar or offensive, please. Also, no poetry or children's books (MG and YA are fine). 
3) Submissions will not be considered for representation. Ever. Not even a little bit. If you try querying me at the blog address, you get instantly deleted. What I publish here is not always the same genre or style that I'd represent as an agent. This blog is 100% independent from my agency. 
4) New Rule: Do not submit more than once a month, or more than three times a year. I have to instate this rule because some - not all, but some - were abusing the blog and finding loopholes to get me to publish huge chunks of their self-published novels. Bringing me to...
5) Please do not submit excerpts of your self-published book. I will Google you and will know if you're lying. Self-publishing is still publishing, and I only accept unpublished work. If you submit something else, I promise to mention you also have a book out. 

Please follow these rules so I don't have to stop posting stories altogether. Thanks! And now... some fiction!

The Hand You're Dealt is a short story from English, reading, and creative writing teacher, Carol Lynn Thomas. She's a writer and editor for the Middle Grades Reading Network of the University of Evansville in Indiana, and is currently working a novel called What Flavor for Murder? Also, today is her birthday! 

Enjoy! And thank you for bearing with my housekeeping business. 

The Hand You're Dealt 
by Carol Lynn Thomas

From moment to moment, we view our lives through a prism of memory…

I was looking out at the lilac bushes in the yard when the phone rang.

“Carol? You hungry?” Evi said, laughing.

“Vat you got?” I said, slipping into our routine.

“I got pot cheese, tuna, all kinds fruit. Vat you vant?” For over fifty years, she’s been imitating her mother to make me laugh, sweeping me back to Newark, to when Evi was small and slim with pale skin and acres of thick brown hair, and I was a stocky tomboy in dungarees, penny loafers, and a blue and white plaid blouse.

I pictured her now in something silky, a beret perched on her still luxuriant hair.

“I’m at JFK. Just in from London. But I can’t stand to hear one more word about the terrorist craziness here. My flight will board in a sec, so quick, tell me who said this: ‘I greased it up and will come back later and slide it in.’”

We both guffawed.

“The janitor to Mrs. Murray, 1954, seventh grade, Bragaw Avenue School,” I said, laughing.

“You remembered!”

“Who could forget?”

The janitor had stopped by our Home Ec class with a sewing machine he’d repaired for Mrs. Murray of the corkscrew strawberry curls, ubiquitous hairnet, and pink face.

“Whatever made you think of Bragaw?” I asked.

“Here’s a clue: ‘Now, girls, imagine you are on stage dancing Swan Lake. But first I tell you about my illustrious debut in Moscow,’” Evi said in a Russian accent.

“Miss Petrovna!”

Evi laughed. “At the ballet last night I thought of her. Did I ever tell you I found out that she really did dance with the Bolshoi?”

“So those stories about her incomparable dancing were actually true?”

“Looks that way,” Evi said.

“And did I ever tell you how much I hated her?” I asked, remembering her eyes, pools of black without a trace of light or warmth.

“I know. Listen, I sent you a newspaper article you have to see. You'll know why when you see it. Should be in today’s mail. Call me tomorrow. We’ll talk. My flight’s being called. Gotta run.”

“Miss Petrovna,” I said aloud in the sun-filled kitchen, her name bitter on my tongue. I’d always feared if she brushed up against me, her sharp angles would slice my skin. She was so bony, nearly translucent, with black hair sleeked into a bun.

I poured a cup of coffee and looked at the lilacs along the fence, remembering the ones that grew beyond the windows of the little gymnasium where she made my life miserable. I laid my left hand on the table, and with the index finger of my right hand, I traced its shape.

Every Thursday afternoon in gym class I had to endure Miss Petrovna’s probing black eyes and frosty smile as she sashayed around me. To Evi, she may have been just a silly bore, but to me, an awkward girl with malformed fingers on my left hand, she was Torquemada in faded ballet slippers.

In her raspy voice, she blathered endlessly about herself. But I didn’t hate her for her egomania or the square dancing or minuets or calisthenics. I hated Miss Petrovna for how she made me feel as she pirouetted around me, her gaze pressing on my hand. I was helpless to stop the scrutiny. With gold bangle bracelets jangling on her skinny wrists, she reminded me of a cat with a bell on its collar to alert unsuspecting prey. I was the plump mouse with no chance of sanctuary through a crack in a baseboard.

There I stood in my blousy, blue gym suit and white sneakers, arms extended shoulder high. Miss Petrovna’s black eyes blistered a hole in my exposed left hand. She stared with a look I’d already seen too often, naked curiosity mixed with a glimmer of revulsion. Her eyes widened for an instant, then narrowed to slits. She raised an eyebrow. As her pouty lips smiled reluctantly, I glimpsed yellowed teeth with a gap between the front top two.

One afternoon Miss Petrovna herded us to the nurse’s office for weighing and measuring. Having to step on a scale in front of everyone and hear my weight announced might be grounds nowadays for a lawsuit against Nurse Brennan for violation of my self-esteem. But this was 1954.

As we lined up to return to the gym, Miss Petrovna clasped my shoulders and aimed me toward the nurse. Then she instructed the rest of the girls to start down the hall.

Dread swirled in my stomach.

“Carol, dear, come over here and show me your left hand,” Nurse Brennan said coolly.

My face burned. I eased my hand out toward her and caught my lower lip between my teeth. I avoided her eyes.

She grabbed my wrist, pressing on the bones in my hand and fingers, squeezing the fused joints in my left pinky, rubbing my tiny, gnarled fingernails.

I squirmed. She yanked me closer. “Stand still,” she said, irritated, turning my hand over and over. “I can’t possibly be hurting you.”

Nurse Brennan’s face blurred. Black spots danced in the thick air. Sweat beaded on my upper lip. I stared at the clock, willing the minute hand to jump ahead. I squeezed my eyes closed, aching to wrench my hand free, tear out the door, down the corridor into the freedom of the September afternoon. Legs pumping, arms thrashing, I’d race down the street to the park and collapse beneath a big oak to catch my breath. I’d look up to find Miss Petrovna and Nurse Brennan, panting and wild-eyed, looming above me. But before they could drag me back to school, God would rescue me. Slowly, slowly, He’d make their fingers blister and char and shrivel into tiny nubs of flesh while I watched and ignored their screams.

Miss Petrovna’s voice drifted back to me through a tunnel.

“Have you ever seen such a mutation?”

“An interesting malformation, for sure, perhaps as a result of the mother’s rubella in her third trimester,” Nurse Brennan said.

The walls squeezed me. I gritted my teeth, swallowing tears. That night, when I looked up the words I didn’t understand, the sharpness of the women's cruelty skewered me.

I prayed for a cloak of invisibility on gym afternoons. Why would a botched person like me exist at all? Over and over I chased this puzzle in circles. There had been no snafu in God’s laboratory. He had given me a defective hand on purpose. Was I an experiment? Let’s watch her to see how she copes?

On the day the new girl, Nicole Schuster, arrived in gym class we had to do Israeli dancing. Miss Petrovna peered over the piano, singing off-key at the top of her voice. “Hava nagila, hava nagila, hava nagila ...”

Nicole snatched my left hand. Her face remains on the edge of my memory, a photograph that has hardly faded with the years. As she opened her hand to look at mine, her mouth soured as if she had touched a slug. Shuddering, she jumped back and shrieked, “Ewww! What happened to your fingers?”

My heart loosened from its moorings. The images in the room --- the blue gym suits, the girls’ faces, a patch of sunlight on the wooden gym floor--- tumbled like fragments in a kaleidoscope, blurring, then sharpening again. I stood with both hands behind my back, my right clutching the left, squeezing my little fingers to comfort them. Anger billowed in Evi’s eyes. A flush crept up her neck, staining her pale face. No one moved for a long moment. A few girls giggled. Then Evi blocked me from Nicole who was hopping around, wiping her hand on her gym suit.

“I can’t believe you are such a horrible, disgusting, mean witch!” Evi hissed at her.

Miss Petrovna, engrossed in a racket of her own making at the piano, seemed unaware of the drama unfolding. By the time she glanced up, Evi had shoved Nicole away. As we got back in the circle, she took my left hand and gently squeezed it. I didn’t pull away.

From then on, I faked headaches at lunchtime on Thursdays to escape gym class.

I poured another cup of coffee and walked out to the mailbox. Sure enough, Evi’s envelope had arrived. I unfolded the article from The London Times, dated July 9, 2005.

Nicole Schuster Hoffman, noted American surgeon, was severely injured in yesterday’s terrorist attacks on the city’s Underground. It is still uncertain whether her hands can be saved.

I laid my left hand on the table and traced it with the index finger of my right hand.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed the imagery in this piece, particularly the description of Miss Petrovna's thin figure and her cruelty (the line "she was Torquemada in faded ballet slippers" had me rolling!)
    The dialogue was interesting as well. Evi's imitation of her mother rang true for me, as these sorts of imitations are something me and my friends do to entertain each other quite frequently. This makes me forget I'm reading a story and brings me into a cozy real world with your characters, which I love!
    Thank you for sharing your work!