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What Matters

Lisa Burkhardt’s lime green bandannas and pink Goody combs clashed with her red fly-away hair. Her anger surfaced just like her freckles: slapdash and intense. She bragged she inherited her Irish temper from her mother and I believed it. When Mrs. Burkhardt took walks without her usual thick 1980s makeup, I couldn’t tell mother and daughter apart. Lisa could rant for hours using only swear words and the occasional “off” or “balls.” A neighborhood boy teased me once in front of her. She leveraged her lanky 14-year-old body to pin him against a tree trunk and asked “You jealous, little boy? Do you want me to give you a smooch?”

I worshipped her.

The way her green and black tri-level house peeked into our living room whenever I opened the drapes left me no choice but to be Lisa’s friend. I helped her with chores after school every day. Together she and I scrubbed their already-spotless kitchen and bathrooms.

Lisa was funny, too. She liked to call the mop Boy George, as in “Grab Boy George out of the utility closet, will ya?” When I asked her why Boy George, she jabbed her finger at its shaggy locks and its mascara-thin black seam and said “It looks just like him!” On Monday afternoons when her mom worked late, she snuck shots of Southern Comfort. I politely abstained while lecturing her on her poor life choices, but it never stopped her. That’s pretty much how our friendship worked.

One morning just before Halloween 1985, I watched an ambulance back into the Burkhardt’s driveway. Blue and red lights flashed but no siren blared. EMTs ran out and opened the truck’s back door. I couldn’t see who they carried out on the stretcher, but I watched until the orange leaves circled up behind the ambulance and settled back down on the quiet street. Lisa wasn’t in school that day or the day after. The rumor around school was that Mrs. Burkhardt had died of a brain aneurism in the shower.

I waited a week to climb Lisa’s front porch again. The open-door policy felt revoked somehow, so I knocked until Lisa yelled for me to come in. As I passed the bathroom I noticed perfume misters and tall hairspray cans and the telltale pink of hair curlers jumbled on the counter. Lisa sprawled on the floor of her room, dirty dishes fanning around her head like pets waiting for attention. Her eyes stayed closed.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why?” She stared up at me. “You didn’t do anything.”

“Do you want me to help you with the bathroom?”

“No. Don’t you know that doesn’t matter anymore?” she huffed. Her red hair reflected in her eyes, and I found myself in a stare-down that didn’t break until she looked up at the ceiling. I slouched back across the street soon after, feeling like I’d failed a test.

Our street widened after that. Lisa found girlfriends in her grade and spent less time at home. Despite the constant gaze of her tri-level, I never visited her again. She entered high school; I followed quietly two years later. She said Hi to me in the hallway sometimes and drove me home once with a cigarette jammed in her mouth, blasting Guns-N-Roses the whole way.

Twenty years later, she friend-requested me on Facebook. A message popped up. Lisa asked how I was. I told her about my life in Chicago, about my partner.

—Does he treat you well? she typed.

He does. He takes care of me when I’m sick. He sings to me when I’m sad.

—Good. That’s all that matters. The flashing green light in the IM window went solid gray. She unfriended me the next day.

Cardinal and White, p. 10


It started with Stella Atkinson’s skirt. On the first day of school, she walked straight to the first desk in my art classroom with a two-inch black panel hanging like an afterthought at the end of her hem. I had her march right back into the corridor.

“Stella, your skirt violates dress code.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Wheatland.” Her cheeks reddened as she spoke. “I had a growth spurt over the summer. Mother did the best she could.”

“Well, why on earth didn’t she take you to Jessop’s for another?”

Stella shrank before me. When she brought her eyes back up from the ground, they didn’t go any higher than my chin. I noticed a stitched-up tear on the shoulder of her white blouse.

“Daddy says people will always need food. It’s only temporary.”

I understood. Atkinson’s Grocery, southern California’s grocery franchise and Stella’s family’s business, was usually full to brimming with neighbors chatting about produce and cuts of meat. But that all changed. The aisles had grown quiet. I was convinced on my last visit that I had entered one of those “other dimensions” the pulp magazines were always writing about. Instead of people, cans of soup and cantaloupe occupied the aisles. The bins of vegetables were stacked higher than I was tall. The newspaper said that grocery stores were experiencing a surplus of goods on account of the stock market crash a few years ago. People just weren’t shopping there anymore, and the white collar business owners here in Whittier, California, began to feel the repercussions of what the newspapers call “the Great Depression.”

“I see. It’s fine, Stella. Go back to your desk and sketch the still-life I’ve set up.” I smoothed down my own plaid dress, folded a pleat in my favorite cotton cardigan.

Later, I broached the subject in the teacher’s salon. We discussed the little things they’d noticed. Miss Frankenfield said she’d started turning a blind eye to the students grabbing third and fourth servings during luncheon, and Mr. Petty told us of Norman Reilly, the student whose family pulled him from school without notice.

“It’s probably best if we relax the rules until the situation improves, Ruth,” Mrs. Grassell whispered as we walked back to class together.

Relaxing the rules proved easy as 1933 progressed. The dress code violations became too numerous to enforce, so we focused on other things: the talent of this year’s tennis team or Dorothy Gibbons’s prize science project. We let the signs of the Great Depression recede into the background. I thought about that on the day I taught my students about foreshortening– the illusion of objects receding from our perspective.

This is my submission to mocavo.com’s My Story writing contest in which I won first place!



My childhood is a lockbox in the attic
securing the slow sound of sandpaper
stripping veneer by a medium-grit woman
at ease on the floor of the garage,
a vintage afghan dozing next to the Siamese cat
on the squat couch in the living room,
and the day-old smell of varnish rising up
from a garnet of a man deep in his own basement
on a lean Saturday afternoon.

falcon in flight/wikimedia commons

And the Mugs Look On With Mouths Agape

The stone’s silent flight through the open window seems calculated like a falcon’s swoop except for the clash of rock on glass. Coffeepot pieces plink to the parquet floor, the stone-bird gloats in hot brown blood, and the guilty ask “What broke?”

(photo credit: wikimedia commons)