The Shape of Air
I can see air on most days. I can see it as it curls in circles out of chimneys and curves around people’s heads. It looks like big squares and flat rectangles at the post office and like arms and legs and feet at Turn-About Clothing. The Piggly Wiggly has milk-carton-shaped air. The church has colored air that bends around the cross above the piano and is full of fur and sunlight on Sunday mornings. Air can be any shape at all, even those funny shapes we learn in math class, like rhombuses and trapezoids and parallelograms. But circle air is best because circles are smooth and round and never end. They are happy and quiet and always smiling. Triangle air is not so good because it’s sharp and pointy. And oval air is the worst. Ovals used to be circles, but they got all crooked and sad and stretched out of shape.
Seeing air is a lot like seeing the future, and most days I can see that too. Sometimes, I dream about sitting at my desk and watching the little hand on the clock turn round and round until it is 2:34, and the next day at school that exact thing happens, and I get this weird, creepy feeling. I always know when Mama is going to come in late at night and stumble down the hallway to our bedroom. And one time, when Mr. Mittens was lost, I knew he was under the old car in our backyard. Seeing the future is why I felt real sick today when Ms. Moleface drew a whole sky full of stars on the chalkboard right underneath President Johnson’s face. My plain yellow pencil was already on the top of my desk, and I was reaching for my ugly black notebook when Ms. Moleface said, “Today you are to write one page about the day of your birth.” Whenever she talks, big ovals of spit fly from her lips, and the four dark hairs in the mole on her chin dance up and down. Her real name is Ms. Moffice, but everyone calls her Ms. Moleface at recess. I looked at her hairy mole and then I looked up at all those stars and wanted to groan real loud because I didn’t know anything about the day I was born and because homework always means I don’t get to watch Mr. Dawson get kissed on Family Feud.
“Let’s hear some of your stories before you begin writing.” Ms. Moleface’s words dropped like sharp triangles onto the desk in front of her. Only me and Jenna Alcomb sat with our elbows against the back of our chairs. Even Pammy Bell, who comes into our class for English and sits behind a table in her wheelchair in the back of the room because she can’t fit under a desk, was waving her crooked arms.
“Brad, what story do you have to share?” asked Ms. Moleface. She always calls on Brad Kepler first because his mama buys their new clothes at the mall which is almost an hour away instead of at the Turn-About downtown and because his daddy is an important policeman. Also, Brad was in a commercial for his uncle’s car lot when he was a real little baby so he was actually on T.V. He’s pretty famous.
“I was born in the back of a police car,” Brad Kepler said. His blue shirt was the same color as his eyes, and his nose was shaped like a triangle. “My daddy turned on the siren, and he drove through all three red lights in town and even went 150 miles per hour on the highway. But then Daddy pulled over to the side of the road, and Mom had to lie down in the back seat, back where they put the bad men, and I popped out of her belly right underneath the big sign with a picture of a fish.”
Sometimes Brad can be real dumb. I know babies don’t really come out of a woman’s belly, but that’s what he said. In my head I pictured the wind blowing Brad’s mom’s mouth into an oval, and I thought of the billboard that has a picture of a fish with whiskers saying “Throw Your Line in at Joe’s Catfish House.” I always think that fish looks just like Mr. Mittens. Brad looks like a fish because his eyes bug out from his head just a little.
“That is very exciting Brad. You will have quite a story to write about. How about you, Lacey?” asked Ms. Moleface.
I couldn’t see Lacey Miller’s desk, but I knew she already had out her notebook with the picture of a unicorn and a pink and green rainbow on the front and her blue sparkly pencil and two erasers in the shape of a Dr. Pepper can and a hamburger. The erasers looked new because Lacey hardly ever makes mistakes, and she never gets a big U for unsatisfactory in handwriting and conduct on her report card.
“The doctors had to cut my Mama open so I could be born, and I’ve seen the scar,” Lacey said. She is always flipping her shiny blonde hair over her shoulder and squinting her eyes into little ovals when she talks. “It’s barely covered by her underwear and looks like a smiling mouth, like her bellybutton is happy.” Everybody, even mean Ms. Moleface, laughed. But I didn’t because I hate Lacey Miller.
Right behind my head, I could hear Pammy Bell say, “I didn’t get to breathe soon enough when I was born.” I am the only one who ever hears her talk because Pammy speaks real soft, and her voice is hardly there. Hearing Pammy talk is a lot like seeing air and knowing the future. Her words are all crooked like her arms, and she drools all over the front of her shirt.
“Uh, Uh, Uh.” Across the room, Caroline Owen was waving her hand and making noises that sounded like Mr. Mittens when he got caught in the fridge. He ate a whole rectangle of cheddar cheese and puked all over the kitchen linoleum when I let him out. “Can I write about when my little brother was born?” she said. Caroline Owen’s momma had a baby that died before Christmas vacation. Caroline got to miss school for the funeral, and when she came back, she passed around a picture of a little white coffin with shiny gold handles. It was a baby boy, Caroline said, but she never got to see it because it decided to be born too soon.
“No you may not, Caroline. You are writing about your own birth because it is important to know where you come from so you can know where you are going,” Ms. Moleface spit.
Adults are always saying stuff is important, like when Nana says it’s real important to let Mama sleep when she won’t get out of bed some mornings. Or when Mama says it’s real important to go to college since she couldn’t go because I was born. So I took out my stupid black notebook and grabbed my lumpy yellow pencil, but I didn’t know what to write. The pencil felt soft between my teeth. I pretended to look for my eraser, which I lost in art class two weeks ago. Way in the back corner, where it’s dark and sticky, I found part of a red crayon, and I tried real hard to breathe. Sometimes, when I get scared and nervous, I have to remind myself to take a breath because if I don’t my chest starts to feel like there is a triangle stuck in my lungs with its sharp points poking me in the ribs. I had to go to the bathroom real bad, but I already used up all my bathroom passes. I tried to stare at the head in front of me to calm down, but Missy Green had her hair in one big ponytail by her right ear which made her head look like a triangle instead of a nice, round circle, and this made me sad.
I wanted to grab a Kleenex from the back of room. They are the soft ones, not the hard ones that come in a cheap gray box that Nana buys. And because I have a cold, I wanted to practice my spooky Darth Vader breathing, but when I looked at the board I saw four big check marks next to my name. Five means I don’t get to go to afternoon recess, so I scrunched down in my chair and made myself into a ball. I needed to sharpen my pencil. Construction paper birthday leaves were falling from the calendar next to the window. The bright red one said “Cassie Wheeler Nov. 2,” and I thought about the round chocolate cupcakes Lacey brought the whole class last year in third grade when she had her name on a construction paper birthday bunny. She said it took her mama a whole day to mix them and bake them and cover them with green icing and little oval candy eggs, and then her mama put them in boxes filled with plastic grass and brought them to school for lunch period.
I still didn’t know what to write. President Lincoln was staring at me from the chalkboard. He looked kind with his beard and big tall hat. Lincoln made me think of the picture of Jesus in my Sunday school classroom. In the picture, Jesus wears a white dress and red sash and his beard is the color of graham crackers. But Jesus doesn’t have on a big hat.
No matter how I moved, Lincoln stared at me, and I didn’t want to make President Lincoln and Jesus upset, so I tried to write my homework. The day I was born. I wrote with my lumpy pencil. The day. I was. BORN. And then I didn’t know what to write because there are no bird wings on my Mama’s belly, and I don’t have a dead baby brother or daddy with a police car. I chewed on my pencil for what seemed like forever until I finally saw the future and knew what my story was about. It was shaped like a big fat circle.
When I was born, I said, the sky was filled with clouds, and there was a big rainstorm with loud thunder and lightning. Then a big triangle tornado hit the trailer park by my house, the one with the trees on the sign even though the place has no trees now. It had trees then, and all the people in the trailers had to crawl under their beds or scrunch into their coat closets so the tornado wouldn’t find them, but no one was hurt because people in trailer parks have to deal with tornadoes all the time and know how to hide from them. The tornado blew the trees over to Dunnigan Park and put them around the big pond, and it also blew in the strange-looking black ducks with red bumps on their heads. But the people from the trailer park weren’t mad about their trees. They were actually happy because now they had a beautiful park to go to and they could swing and climb up the slide backwards and they liked their dirt yards better anyways.
The air also blew down the school so the kids didn’t have to go to class for the whole rest of the year. It ripped the roof off the Tasty-Freeze, and people all over town could lick ice cream off their front porches. And my mama was out in the rain and wind and thought, “This baby is coming now,” and just then my daddy drove up in a red corvette, the fastest car ever. At the hospital the lights went out, and all the nurses had to stick candles into their hats so the rooms were filled with light and shadows. And my daddy sang a song to me when I was still trying to get out of Mama’s you-know-what about what a pretty baby I was and how much he loved me. And then I was born.
When I was finished with my story, I could feel Lincoln and Jesus smiling at me. I even had time to draw little pictures of the wind all over the blank spaces on my paper. I drew clouds and gave them faces, and some of them were moving their lips like they were blowing out candles on a birthday cupcakes. One of the cloud men had a hole in it because I erased so hard, but you could still tell what it is. I even gave the paper to Ms. Moleface early, right before afternoon recess, because I sometimes lose things and I didn’t want to lose the greatest story I ever wrote in my entire life.
At recess, I tried to walk the lines of the four-square court without falling off onto the grey concrete ocean full of sharks and seaweed. Sometimes Jenna Alcomb comes over and asks to play, but she has real bad balance and always gets eaten by a shark. I was so busy spinning that I didn’t see the future and Brittany Davis walking towards me.
“Lacey says that Cassie has no daddy,” Brittany said to all the girls following her. When I stopped twirling, my left foot was in the ocean. That’s when I did something bad.
Lacey Miller and Brad Kepler were standing by the fence like always because they are going together. They always have to be next to one another in line and sometimes their parents give them money and let them walk to for ice cream. That’s when I saw the future and knew a big round kickball was heading straight for Lacey’s face, but I kept real quiet and didn’t yell “Watch out Lacey” or anything. One minute the circle was spinning through the air and the next minute I let it hit Lacey right in the head, and I had to laugh even though all the other girls, even Jenna Alcomb, ran over to the fence and the recess lady had to blow her whistle over and over again.
I think the bad thing I did is why Ms. Moleface kept me after school when all the busses were waiting. “Cassie,” Ms. Moleface said, “you should not lie in your writing assignments. And you know this is not art class. I don’t want to see anymore mushrooms or sheep on your schoolwork. I am going to let this pass because of your vivid imagination, but in the future, this kind of writing will not be acceptable.”
I saw my story all covered in red ink and sucked in my breath real hard and tried not to cry. The triangle in my chest was back and there was a rhombus in my throat. I couldn’t look at Ms. Moleface, and I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t go home and read my story to Nana or Mama or Mr. Mittens.
“I think your story was interesting and fun to read, Cassie,” Ms. Moleface said. I looked at her little mole, but the hairs didn’t move at all. “The problem is that it isn’t the truth, which is what this assignment required. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said. My voice was all funny and stretched like an oval, and then I ran out of the class room and raced to my bus, past Pammy Bell who was sitting in her chair on the giant wheelchair lifting machine. “Your story was the best one ever,” she said, but only I could hear her.
At bus number fourteen, Mr. Jolly was sitting in his seat like always. “Hello there, Cassie. You look like you’ve had a long day.” I just nodded and went to my seat. Outside, the trees were waving their bony arms like they had all the answers. A big triangle of birds flew above the bus and up into the air. And when we passed the trailer park with the mean dogs and no grass, I thought of my story crumpled up into an oval at the bottom of my book bag.
At my stop, I jumped down all the rectangle bus steps. “Nana! Nana!” She circled her arms around my shoulders. “Nana, what does it mean to be vivid?”
In the kitchen, Nana’s pink finger ran over the letters in the dictionary. “Vivid means bright or alive or fresh,” she told me. Her breath formed a big circle on my cheek. So now I guess the red marks Ms. Moleface gave me on my story are OK because I don’t mind being fresh. But I didn’t really mean to lie about the air and weird ducks and having a daddy.
“Mama,” I said after supper when a commercial came on during Family Feud. “Mama, when I was born was there ice cream and candles and howling wind?” But Mama just looked at me and said, “Why are you asking such stupid questions?” which is what she always says when I ask about my daddy or other things she doesn’t want to talk about.
“But Mama, Mama, Mama. What happened when I was born?”
“Nothing,” Mama said. Her words were zeros in the air. “Absolutely nothing.”
About the Author: Carla Kirchner is a poet, fiction writer, and writing professor from Missouri. Her poetry chapbook, The Physics of Love, won the Concrete Wolf Press 2016 Poetry Chapbook Contest and will be published in the fall of 2017. Her fiction/prose has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Rappahannock Review, Eunoia Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Unbroken Journal, and Literary Orphans.