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Halfway To California

Feel Good IV

Feel Good IV

I fly United Airlines to California. As the plane lifts, we crest buildings and trees and hills. A three-story brick school building that could hold hundreds of students becomes the size of a postage stamp, then finally disappears. I wish the memory of Patty would also disappear, at least for awhile.

Patty is one of my students, and she is sixteen years old. She has watery blue eyes, and she seems fragile and eager to please. All the kids hate her because she smells, and because she’s a Weigly. Her father, Shotgun Weigly, is the only cab driver in town. He wears grungy tee shirts with holes in them, and he has a big belly. He also has a good heart, I think. Most people try to avoid him, just as they try to avoid Patty. Do you know what the students call fleas in Coaltrain Hills? Weigly bugs. All the way from first grade to twelfth. Patty’s sister is in the fourth grade, and no one will sit next to her. No one will sit next to Patty either. Patty is in my classroom for two periods every day. I teach her speech and composition. In the composition course she sits in a front corner by herself, but in the speech class we all sit in a circle on the floor. I sit beside Patty, and there is a big space on the other side of her and there are fights over who will sit next to that space. I try desperately to protect Patty by steering clear of her California subjects in group discussions: subjects such as Indians, ranches, and horses are off limits. But, of course, she periodically outwits me and tells the group that she is half-Indian, or that her Uncle Bill has a ranch in California. The other students, the pretty ones and the bright ones, first roll their eyes, then yawn, then hammer Patty with questions until her eyes cloud over, her voice quavers, and I am afraid that she will have another epileptic seizure. I change the subject and wish that I could spank all their smart asses. How dare they? They who have so much. Why must they take her dreams away?

Dalmations. Patty had a matched set. She loved them. I destroyed them, I believe. I try to make this up to her every time I see her, every time I talk to her.

I remember that day when she turned in her first composition, laboriously written, erased, copied over. “It’s about my dogs.” Her pale features shone. “They live at my Uncle Bill’s ranch. One has the cutest black spot over one of his eyes. I just know you’re going to love them!” Then she hugged me. I was embarrassed, and that embarrassment made me stiffen in her embrace. You see, I cared; I really cared about whether I was popular or not with the students I taught. Patty was a pariah, and I was afraid I might be one too. When she finally pulled away, I was blushing. To hide my embarrassment, I whipped out my red pen and began reading the composition.

“I have two dog there name our Tad and Lad.”

The English teacher in me could not rest. “Patty!” I commanded, “Come here! Now what is wrong with this sentence?” She sighed, and stood beside me, close, too close. I could smell her unwashed body, and this too made me brisker than usual. “Read it aloud!”

“I have two dogs. Their names are T–ad and L–ad.” She read laboriously, stopping between the consonant and vowel sounds.

“Where do you naturally pause?” I became fanatical in my desire to teach her at least the writing of a simple sentence. “And what is the plural of ‘dog’? You know, don’t you, that there are two kinds of ‘are’?” I gave her an example sentence for each. “Now, do you understand?” I suppose my voice must have sounded harsh, because when I looked at Patty again, the light was out of her face and her hands were shaking. “I’m sure it’s a good story,” I said with a smile.

“It isn’t a story,” she told me softly; then she turned and sat down.

I hurriedly read the rest of her composition through my tears. I marked all her mistakes, though, damn that red pen! I think I would correct a suicide note, even. I read that Tad and Lad are lots of fun to play with. That they came running when she arrived at her uncle’s ranch and poked their soft noses into her hand. That they liked sugar lumps and often bounded with horses in the field. That she loved them. “How I love you, Tad and Lad,” read her last sentence.

I circled the misspelled words and corrected the punctuation marks. I wrote “Good description!” in the margin, and “They must be beautiful dogs!” at the end of the paper. But Patty looked at all the ink marks, crumpled the story, and threw it into the wastebasket. “Oh, do write it over,” I said with a bright professional smile. “With a few corrections it could really be a good story.”

“It wasn’t a story.” Patty looked at me sadly. “They were truly my Dalmatians.”

I drink wine evenings, this evening, every evening. I drink until teaching becomes just a way to make a living, a means to an end, rather than just an end in itself. I place “Take that Job and Shove it!” on my Sony, set the mechanism on “Repeat” and lie slantwise across a high-armed overstuffed chair and leaf through the newest issue of Cosmopolitan. I try to forget Patty. I take a quiz in the magazine to see whether I’m sexual or nonsexual and score indecently high on the sexual side. The quiz is tricky, and I’m proud of myself for not marking the obvious answers. I imagine all 165 pounds of me in the gold lamé the kinky-haired model is wearing. I eat bread and cheese and begin to read a new story in The New Yorker, but I am soon distracted by an advertisement featuring a gorgeous blonde in a honey-colored coat drinking Scotch in a blizzard. I become her, or rather she becomes me, and I feel the smooth sensation of Scotch in my throat and chest, and the golden warm satin lining of her honey coat. I pour more wine and wish it were Scotch. I reach into the top drawer of my dresser for the savings book. $600–halfway to California. Dreaming of that California, I fall asleep in the chair. All my clothes are still on.

After the Dalmation incident, Patty stayed out of school for three days. When she came back she told me that she had to go to the hospital again for a brain scan. Patty has a particularly severe form of epilepsy. We teachers are all alerted to it and have tongue depressors in our desk drawers. If she has a seizure, we are told to hold her tongue down with the depressor to keep her from swallowing it. When she talks about her seizures, her pale blue eyes water. “I’m so afraid,” she says, “I’m so afraid to have another.” Her medication works for about three months, then her system changes, and she has another seizure. We all pray it won’t happen in our classrooms. “I used to be smart,” she tells me. “With every seizure I get dumber and dumber. Last time I couldn’t hardly remember nothing.” Patty’s I.Q. is about seventy five, I believe. She lives in a dirty, cluttered two room house with seven other members of her family still at home. They all stare at the TV set or the wood burning stove that burns hot, too hot. Her father is naked to the waist and sweating. It is not a cruel house, though. The people in it are gentle, and their eyes are full of dreams.

Patty brought in her second composition. It was about Uncle Bill and his ranch in California. I was careful this time. I had heard about Uncle Bill before. Once Patty brought in a picture of a beautiful little blonde-haired girl in a cowgirl’s costume sitting on a horse. The girl’s smile was pure child-star Hollywood. “That’s me,” she told me, “at my Uncle Bill’s ranch.” Of course it wasn’t, anymore than the models in The New Yorker or Cosmopolitan are me. And yet they are, in a way, as this beautiful child was Patty.

This composition was as ungrammatical as the first, and sad in its sparsity. I urged Patty to fill in her narrative with specifics: sounds, colors, and smells.

“What is it like?” I asked. “Do you ever lie in the grass on your uncle’s ranch and feel the golden softness beneath your back and the cool breeze on your face and bare feet?”

She nodded and smiled. Yes, she had done that.

“Have you ever put your arms around your favorite horse and smelled the barn he slept in and the hay he’d eaten that morning?”

Patty nodded again and smiled even broader.

“Go ahead,” I urged, “what else do you feel?”

“I feel…,” she hesitated, “I feel good. I love my horses. I feel love. I feel wonderful! I love Uncle Bill. I love California.” She drew a deep breath and gestured widely with her hands. She was proud of herself. “You know I’m half Indian, don’t you? The Indian chief gave this to me.” Patty held out her hand to show me a ring that was turning green on her finger. I had heard the Indian story before in speech class in an atmosphere of disbelief, and my embarrassment for Patty, therefore, had gotten in the way of any enjoyment I might have derived from the story. In Patty’s mythical California, not only did she have the run of her uncle’s ranch, but she had also found her true heritage as a native American.

“But what was the ceremony like?” I asked gently. “Were there drumbeats, chanting, smoking of pipes?”

“Oh, they danced around me,” she said seriously, “chanting my Indian name, Patty Running Deer. ” She stared through me and whispered the name again, dramatically drawing out the syllables, “Pa..tty Run..ning Deeeeeeeer.”

Damn the specifics! I thought, as I watched her face. Patty is half-Indian, and her Uncle Bill owns a ranch in California with Dalmatians and horses and wide open spaces. Her name is Patty Running Deer, and all else, the smelly house and sweaty family, the social isolation, and those horrible seizures, all else is a dream.

Patty and I huddled together for the rest of the class period. It didn’t seem to matter any more that the ranch had no place, or the horses no breed, because all of this transcended the Patty I saw standing beside me: Patty with her stringy hair, and her dirty crepe blouse held together with a safety pin. It transcended even me, an inept first year teacher who still blushed in front of the classroom. When the bell rang, Patty hugged me, and the other students snickered behind their hands. But I didn’t care this time. I really didn’t care.

“I’m going to California, too!” I whispered to Patty.

“I’m glad,” she answered, and she gave me a knowing smile. “Maybe we’ll see each other there.”

I find that recently it takes more wine than usual to transport me from my loneliness on one hand, and from my obsession with Patty on the other. I have stacked most of the recent New Yorkers unread. Now I only glance through them on the day of their arrival to make note of the clever cartoons and the colorful advertisements.

I still dream of California, but sometimes it all gets mixed up with Patty’s California. Where am I going? Specifically to Berkeley for a feminist theater workshop, but really I am searching for a state of mind which I believe to be in California. There, amidst coffee houses, poets, fat oysters, and new age encounter groups in the mountains, I think I will find–oh, God knows, I possess no more specifics than Patty. All I can tell you is that on the third glass of wine I think I know, but by the fourth, I have lost all sense of it again. Somewhere there is a place where I can exist with no lump in my throat and no butterflies in my stomach, and I believe that place to be California.

Patty! Patty! She is not my whole world, I know. I have other students and other classes, a temperamental principal, and jolly fellow teachers. But as fall becomes winter, and winter turns into a rainy, early spring, all I can see through the mist is Patty. She has become a tall, white ghost in the school hallways, hiding in the shadows until I pass by. “Miss White! Miss White!” Her high voice is insistent and impossible to ignore. I try to avoid her. Truly I have other students and other duties. This teaching business is more difficult than I ever realized, and for every class I must run off Xerox copies, or set up an overhead projector, or run down to the library to pick up a record player, then quickly return to the classroom before the students wreck everything. Timing is crucial. But for some reason, Patty is always there, always everywhere, to tell me more about the ranch or the horses, or her new discovery that she is truly an Indian princess. She has Irish setters now. She speaks no more of Dalmatians.

“And guess what I’ve named them?” she asked me one morning as I tried to reach the classroom before chaos struck. “Elton and John! Although one is a girl and the other is a boy and they have the most beautiful faces. Miss White?” I had not responded quickly enough. “Miss White?” Her voice was high and insistent.

“Yes, Patty. They do sound beautiful, Patty.” I run to my classroom.

The school guidance counselor, Mrs. Drake, calls me in for a conference. She is fat and formidable, and this time she is smiling nervously.

“We think,” she pauses delicately, “the other teachers and I … well, we believe … that you should tell Patty to wash.”

“What?” The request is so different from what I expected that I’m confused.

“Yes, wash!” The counselor pantomimes a scrubbing motion, her hand rubbing back and forth on her plump arm. “Bathe, change her clothes, her underwear, you know, basic personal hygiene. Surely you’ve noticed,” the counselor wrinkles her nose, “the body odor.”

I feel myself blushing for myself and for Patty. “Maybe the health teacher could–Mrs. Drake, please, I don’t know how to explain this, but I can’t tell Patty to wash, and I certainly can’t tell her to change her underwear.”

“Now, Miss White,” the counselor’s voice softens as she pats my hand. “We can’t always do what is pleasant in this world, now can we? You relate to Patty so well. No one else can stand to be around her, and…,” she pauses, “the whole staff is counting on you.”

I feel trapped, but I nod my head in agreement. I get up to leave, but the counselor once more puts her hand on mine. “One other matter, Miss White.” Her voice is hard, and I’m frightened. “About Patty’s fantasies–I hope you’re not encouraging them. If she loses touch with reality, well, we might have to call the authorities.” The counselor pauses for effect, then continues. “If she gets carried away with her, you know, stories, just remind her sharply that they are just that, stories. If she insists, tell her not to lie any more. She’ll soon learn that such behavior is not acceptable. If you’d like to see Patty’s file, the results of the psychological tests and all, I’d be happy to show it to you.”

“No thank you.” I rise from my seat, holding onto my last shred of poise. “Maybe some other time.”

I flee down the hallway.

How shall I presume? I fix up a pretty vanity kit with Village brand soaps, peach hand lotion, and green herbal shampoo. I am going to give it to Patty as a present. Surely she will love the pretty colors and the nice smells. The kit remains in my desk drawer. I almost give it to her many times, but a hopeful smile, a frown, a hesitation on her part always delays the act.

$900. Savings account fat and healthy. It is now mid April, and I have one month and a half left in this lousy school. California here I come! I stumble over the mess in my apartment to pour one more glass of wine.

Forgive me, Mrs. Drake, but how should I presume? She now signs her name Patty Running Deer, and on her mythical ranch she has met a young man named Mark, a cowboy who loves horses almost as much as she does. I am wrong in all this; I know I am wrong. But she smiles when she tells me about him, and her face is transfigured.

I finally tell Patty that I am weary of her ranch stories. I suggest that she write about one of her stays in a hospital. After all, I tell her, she has had experiences that not many people have had. Her eyes water, but she agrees to try.

She comes to composition class every day for a school week and chews on her pencil. She writes a word, crosses it out, chews on her pencil, and stares out the window. She does not speak. On Friday, she approaches my desk.

“Miss White, could I please bother you, Miss White?” She stands directly beside me and I remember the scented soap in my desk drawer.

“Certainly, Patty.” I give her my bright smile and think of all the other papers I have graded this week and all the other students I have talked to. It is a good feeling.

“Miss White,” Patty looks at me apologetically. “I tried so hard, truly I did, but I miss my horses more than I can ever tell you.”

“Oh, Patty!” I close my eyes and cover them with one hand, my elbow resting on the desk. When I finally look at her, I speak without hesitation. “Write about your horses, Patty, please. I miss them too.”

“Thank you, Miss White.” Patty embraces me.

Maybe if I quit teaching forever, I’ll be forgiven.

I fly United Airlines to California. As the plane lifts, we crest buildings and trees and hills. A three story brick school building that could hold hundreds of students becomes the size of a postage stamp, then finally disappears.

The plane becomes California because we are all going there. The steward offers me a cartful of drinks and I gratefully order a Bloody Mary. This is my first trip, I tell him. I am going to Berkeley. To the land of coffee houses, poets, and new-age encounter groups in the mountains.

The echo of a small, high voice wishes me well.


BIO: Joyce Richardson received her MA in creative writing from Ohio University. She is the author of an Appalachian teacher novel, On Sunday Creek, and a tarot chapbook, The Reader. She enjoys painting, traveling, and being with her writer-husband, Phil. She is a past recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Award in fiction. “Halfway to California” originally appeared in Riverwind in 1996.

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