By Leslie Pietrzyk

The class is restless. I’m also restless, but I’m the teacher; I’m paid 55 dollars a day not to be restless. Right now the kids are drawing pictures of their houses–not officially part of the second grade curriculum, but I was originally an art teacher, so that’s what I fall back on now that I’m doing substitute work.

One boy raises his hand for the fourth time, so I walk to his desk. “Leo” says the magic markered nametag. My high heels tip-tap on the tile floor and the rest of the class watches. We’ve been drawing for half an hour; probably I should come up with a new activity. I wish I could shout “Recess,” and herd the kids outside, but our school day marches along strictly synchronized bells.

“I’m done,” Leo says, showing me a jumble of lines that could be a house. There’s something resembling smoke twisting out of something resembling a chimney.

“Very nice,” I say. “Is that your dog in the front yard?”

“That’s my dad’s Mercedes,” he says.

This is what I’ve forgotten. “How many of you are finished?” I ask. All the hands go up.

“Good,” I say, smiling, walking around the room, glancing over shoulders. They’ve all drawn traditional houses with picture windows and chimneys and bushy green crayoned trees in front. Moms and dads look out windows. “Very nice,” I say to the class, “very, very nice.” What can I say; I suppose the pictures are very, very nice.

I don’t belong here.

* * *

“So how was it?” Mark asks when he gets home. “Anyone bring you an apple?” He kisses me.

I’m fixing dinner, chopping an onion that makes me teary. “No apples,” I say. “But the kids were pretty good considering I’m a substitute.”

“It’s only the third day of school,” he says. “They’re still intimidated.”

I wipe away tears. “The school wants me back tomorrow.”

“Great,” Mark says. “We need the money.”

Because you had to buy us this townhouse, I want to say. What’s wrong with renting? Until now I never owned anything I couldn’t fold up and toss into my car.

“Isn’t it great to have our own place after all these years?” Mark asks. He doesn’t wait for an answer, pulls out the knot in his tie as he leaves the kitchen.

The one thing I like about the townhouse is how open it feels. We have no furniture, so the white walls are like fresh-stretched canvas, the rooms are emptiness to sprawl through. Mornings when I’m awake before Mark I like to sit on the floor and watch the first wave of sunlight wash across the carpeting, touching everything, seeming to leave behind nothing. I don’t want drapes, I’ll chart the fade of the carpet over years, how it wears under the unseen weight of the sun’s tide.

In the places of the desert where I used to live, the sun traditionally was used to bake mud into bricks, to warm the face of cliff dwellings, to guide hunters home.

Something else. Once it stretched a man into a shadow high along a mesa, someone watching me drive away as I left.

* * *

The school secretary tells me that the Weekly Readers have not arrived. I walk into the classroom after lunch with a twenty minute gap in the schedule I’d carefully constructed last night.

I should come up with spelling or addition review, pack all unused time full of facts.

The kids tumble into the room like they’ve been shaken loose. Kids at this school travel in groups–playing team games, eating lunch at long tables in the cafeteria, waiting in tidy lines for the bus.

I let them talk to each other as they sit down, and I think about letting them whittle away the whole afternoon like this. But they turn quiet and look at me as if I’ve forgotten my job and forgotten that there are not supposed to be unplanned silences here in Lincoln Elementary School in suburban Wilmette, Illinois. A silence in a carefully planned schedule–during the exercise for addition review, for example–is fine, but this silence serves no purpose, there is no greater goal.

“Let’s draw,” I say. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Pretend you’re taking a long trip, and you can only pack one suitcase. What would you put in your suitcase? Any questions?”

I pass out paper and try to squeeze in some real learning by telling them to write out the words of everything in their suitcases.

This is my game. When I was in sixth grade, my best friend’s house burned down. The only things saved were what the family grabbed on their way out the door: a pack of address labels, a plastic bracelet someone won at the state fair, a dirty coffee mug, a wrapped gift for an upcoming wedding. Over and over I asked myself what would I grab if I had ten minutes to run out of a burning house? An hour? Six seconds?

I take out a piece of paper. First I draw my grandfather’s alarm clock: it’s an old wind-up with chipped edges and a bent hour hand that sometimes catches on the minute hand trying to get through time more quickly. There’s a dent on the side because he threw it across the room to celebrate every New Year’s Eve.

Next I draw what they call a “bird boot,” the protective secretions a saguaro cactus leaves behind when a bird bores inside the trunk to nest. It’s the shape of a knee joint, but it’s hollow and hard where a bird and her babies squeezed in. They’re hard to find: you have to look for a cactus drying into ribs and wood–that’s when the boot drops out, when the cactus dies and the bird leaves. There was someone teaching me where and how to look.

Then I draw the first Hopi Indian bowl I made, its sides as thin and fragile as a gleaming drop of water. I copied the design from the bowl the girl beside me was making. Hers was one in a long line of pottery that her ancestors had made and her descendants would continue to make.

“How do you spell Nintendo?” Luke asks.

I spell it, possibly incorrectly, and ask if anyone else needs help with words.

“Microwave,” a girl in the back says. I write the word on the board and remind the class that these items have to fit in a suitcase. “It’s a suitcase made out of elastic,” the girl says. I can’t see her nametag. “So it stretches.”

“I want a stretchy suitcase,” Leo says.

“Me too.”

“All right,” but these kids don’t understand. The idea is not to shove in as much as you could possibly want; the idea is to pare until you’re left with only what you must have.

I draw a piece of petrified wood that I found while hiking with Mark. My pencil can’t catch the swift streaks of yellow and purple-red washing through muted oranges and grays, colors so solid they’re what’s left after a tree turns to stone.

“I’m done,” Ben says.

“Me too,” Leo says. A chorus of silent nods surround me, and time is moving too quickly–what I’ve been pondering all my life is something these kids can solve in ten minutes.

I walk around the room and make the approving noises they expect. I can’t draw love, I can’t put love on a piece of paper.

* * *

Mark and I lived in and around the desert for five years. We moved there from the Midwest right out of college–something we hadn’t planned to do. I’d never been to Arizona until Mark’s grandmother’s funeral in Sun City, and I hardly knew what to expect. Sand. Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. Cowboys. From the airplane window, the land looked drained, like the earth had sucked itself underground. We could’ve been orbiting the moon. I held Mark’s hand as we landed.

We spent three days in the Phoenix area. The temperature reached 100 twice–my metal bracelets burned into my arm–but the city was mostly malls and air-conditioning.

Then Mark’s mother told us to go see the Grand Canyon, and she rented a car so Mark and I could make the drive. The streaks of color spilling down the rocks were beyond photography and mechanics. When Mark wasn’t looking, I opened the back of the camera and let the sun scorch the film. That night as we shivered on the black edge of the canyon, I told Mark what I’d done. “Okay,” he said, and it was.

So Arizona was the right place. We hurried back to the Midwest to pack up what we owned, and we moved to the desert. The first year we stayed in Phoenix: I taught art at a private high school, and Mark taught social studies.

The next years Mark taught part-time at a community college in Phoenix while he went to law school, and I traveled throughout the Hopi and Navajo Indian reservations, teaching art to various groups and schools, learning whatever I could of generations-old techniques. I sat behind the loom, watching my fingers coax strands of wool into a blanket. I perched on the edge of a Hopi mesa, stared at the distant snow on the San Francisco Peaks, waited for the fire in the oven to harden my clay and send a shimmer across the bowl’s smooth planes. I soaked reeds in water, bent each with my fingers until it was pliable enough to weave into a tight basket no bigger than my palm. At night I listened to the words of a language I didn’t understand spoken by a man I couldn’t know.

But when Mark said it was time to go, I went.

* * *

“How was your day?” Mark asks. He’s home early.

“Fine,” I say. I slip my paper under a book on the table. I’d been drawing the sweatshirt I wore when I played basketball at the campus gym. It was faded black and the sleeves draped over my knuckles. My step-brother gave it to me when I was in eighth grade, just before he moved to California and lost contact with our father, my mother, me. I still wear the sweatshirt sometimes to smell the salt of the ocean, of my step-brother’s sweat.

“You’re home early,” I say. “Were you fired?”

He looks at me. “Is this working out?”

I say, “The school wants me to teach full-time. The regular teacher has to break her contract.”

“That’s good news,” he says. “Right?”


We can get married is what I know he’s going to say next or sometime this night, so I say, “Want to go to a movie?”

We hold hands in the theatre. share buttered popcorn. He can’t see me in the dark.

* * *

This class has become endless. All I can think about is the promise of the bell.

The kids are writing in workbooks.

Outside the line of cars starts to form. Moms and babysitters are here to pick up the kids and cart them to the lesson of the day. Hockey, swim team, soccer, ballet, piano, children’s theatre. Every day it’s something different.

The bell rings. I jerk.

“Class dismissed,” I say, “see you tomorrow,” the words sounds I’m supposed to make.

I have the drawings of the suitcases on my desk. I haven’t scribbled red smiley faces on them yet. The picture on top shows a Mommy, a Daddy, and two sisters with yellow hair. They’re huddled inside a crookedly-drawn suitcase but they’re smiling; airholes have been outlined with black crayon. Their smiles are wide, nearly cutting their heads in two.

Written on the back of the picture is JULIA. Which one is she?

When I was Julia’s age, I found a rock in my backyard that had a small bone embedded in it. It was just wider than a rat’s tail, as long as my pinkie finger, and it was notched with tiny vertebrae, each ridge a distinct line–a dinosaur bone, I remember thinking. Even the most brutal of creatures is fragile in spots, has tiny bones somewhere: a toe, a tail. There’s always something easily broken, and it’s not a heart. A heart is a muscle. A muscle can be torn or stretched, but I’m sure it cannot be broken like a bone.

* * *

“What’s with you lately?” Mark asks. It’s Sunday, and the rain that once seemed a novelty after the dryness of the desert is wearing a deep groove into my thoughts. In front of me are the suitcases the children drew. I haven’t decided whether to hang the pictures up in the classroom, a long, even line of children who are certain of things. Mark’s voice seems far, lightning aiming for a fuzzy mountain peak.

I murmur, hope to leave it at that, but his eyes want more. There’s a pause, then he touches my shoulder perhaps more roughly than he thinks, perhaps not, and asks, “Aren’t you happy?”

In all our years together he never asked this question. He always knew how I was feeling.

* * *

That night I can’t sleep. We go to bed together, but Mark’s not talking to me. I listen to the water drum our roof. Mark’s roof.

I’ve known people who do not believe in owning things. Who could hold onto the desert, the stars, the sun?

In my head I sketch a rumpled, dingy T-shirt, V-neck, the kind that comes three to a package through the J.C. Penney catalog, delivered to a post office miles and miles from anything you’d think to call a town. There’s a tiny hole in the armpit that should be sewn up before it grows and sends the shirt to the rag pile.

I knew his oldest son first, one of a group of boys, teasing girls with crude insight and passing through blurred days until he could leave school through the sheer mass of accumulated years. He had hard bullet eyes but a mouth that stayed young, and now and then he would take time to talk to me when his friends were playing basketball. Their noisy shouts outside the classroom window were a ceiling on our conversation, but once or twice he asked me abrupt questions in a still whisper, and my answers set loose his eyes for a moment or two. Nevertheless, a month after I left, I heard he was caught robbing a convenience store in Flagstaff.

I met his father at the trading post. I was looking for a bracelet to give my mother, half-embarrassed to be peering in the display case but accepting my role as someone passing through, not much more than a tourist, afraid to offend by choosing one person’s bracelet over another, afraid to spend too much money, afraid to spend not enough. His father brought in a shoebox full of silverwork that made my decision for me, and I bought one bracelet for my mother and two for myself.

“My son tells me you’re a good teacher,” he said, staring at something over my left shoulder, the same bullet eyes.

“Thank you,” I said. “I enjoy being up here. Your land is beautiful.”

He accepted the incompleteness of the compliment with a tight smile. We walked to the parking lot and stood near his battered pick-up. His black hair spread across the middle of his back like the tail feathers of a soaring bird.

“Well, good-bye,” I said, holding out my hand for him to shake.

He didn’t; he looked beyond my shoulder and said, “Teach me to read,” and his eyes were not hard like a bullet, but something caught by a sudden frost.

We met every night, and he was a good worker but a slow learner. I skipped weekends with Mark down in Phoenix to help him. I don’t know what people thought; I suppose they thought something, but he was such a big man that maybe they didn’t dare.

He never said why he wanted to learn to read. I hoped it was something inside him that had been still for too many years, but more likely it was fear of being cheated on the jewelry contracts at the trading post.

We didn’t often speak of personal things. He told me that all his children wanted to pack up and move to Phoenix. His wife wove blankets to sell at the trading post, but she was very slow and too careful in her work, so he had to make the silver jewelry. He spoke of the jewelry as a commodity, not a craft, not a work of art, and that’s how I started to think of the bracelets I’d bought, so I couldn’t enjoy wearing them.

And I told him that soon I would have to leave–the government funding to live here was only for one more semester and a summer. “Government money makes you leave,” he said, “but it’s what traps my people here when we’re meant to travel our land.”

As we worked together, I watched his lips sound out words, a precise series of motions, testing each word silently before offering it to me. Moths beat against the ceiling light, their shadows surrounding us with erotic dances along the walls, and I pushed my hair back off my face over and over, too awkward to tie a bandanna the way he and the other men did. Sometimes I caught myself listening to the howls the coyotes made and not his words, I was sure they were the same thing. I watched his lips move, after he left and in my sleep, and soon nights stayed on into early mornings, and days dragged as I waited for the sun to go down.

By now his son had stopped talking with me; afternoons I heard his defiant shouts rise above the rest on the basketball court.

What made one night different? Maybe the way the clouds were piling up for a storm off over the mountains, something growing too big to control.

I heard his truck pull in off the road. The sound was a smoker’s cough, a drinker’s belch, a noise of dangerous habits. When he didn’t come inside, I walked out to meet him.

He was in the truck, the interior cab light illuminating the back of his head. I stood a moment, listening to the truck sputter like sparks rubbing the blackness of the night, and then I walked over and got in.

The cab light went off and we plunged through the roads and ways he knew until we reached a place where looking straight up I tried to read the message sent by a million stars. “This is beautiful,” I said. My words were stupid and small. I wanted to stay here forever, in his arms, under the stars, amidst the dark desert, wherever I was at that moment.

“I will die here,” he said, so calm, so matter-of-fact. “I can’t take this to Phoenix.”

In a sliver of a moment there was something people might call perfect, and so we turned to each other and made it last all night.

The sun was harsh on my face in the morning, and we forgot about talking as he drove me back to the school. The sky was a blank blue; there was no sign of the promised storm. I remember the sun wearing down on me, painful and bright.

When he pulled into the parking lot, he handed me an object wrapped in a dingy, crumpled T-shirt, the kind that comes three to a pack. “Take this back to Phoenix with you,” he said, his voice rough, something rolling fast down the side of a mesa.

The truck disappeared, trailing a plume of dust.

Inside the T-shirt was a concha belt, each silver plate an intricate suggestion of stars and moths and night and my eyes and dancing shadows and a coyote’s lingering whisper. I’d never seen one like it, not in the museums I’d been to, not in the galleries, not in the art books. And it wrapped perfectly around my hips.

What could I do with this belt in Phoenix, anywhere? Wear it to the mall? Put it on when I went country line dancing? Lock it in a glass case?

I walked out past the end of the schoolyard, on out to where the desert started up again, and then I kept walking. When I was far enough, I unhooked the belt and whirled it above my head, around and around, watching sparks take flight off the silver. I closed my eyes and felt it leave my hand in a single moment.

* * *

When I get home from school the next day, Mark is waiting for me. I smell something garlicky coming from the kitchen, and I’m about to apologize that I’m not very hungry when he hugs me, pulling a bouquet of red roses from behind his back.

“Wow,” I say.

He kisses me, holds me close. I feel the flowers crushing against my chest. “Marry me,” he says in my ear. “I won’t be happy until you’re mine. Say yes.”

There’s a pause, but I don’t think he notices. “Yes,” I whisper. “Yes.”

He steps back and pulls from his pocket a diamond ring big enough to choke a snake. He slips it on my finger and manipulates my hand to make the ring sparkle in the light.

“It’s beautiful,” I say.

He makes it sparkle and flash some more.

“You’re beautiful,” he says.

* * *

That night I get out of bed while Mark’s asleep. I go into the extra bedroom–which will soon be the den, and then a baby’s room, but now just storage. In the back of the closet is my suitcase, an old vinyl thing discarded when my parents bought a new matched set. I pull it out from behind some boxes of books; the suitcase looks enormous, as if I could fit a compact car inside. But I remember struggling on a ski trip to beat down the fluff of my sweaters to squeeze in one more.

The zipper sticks as I tug. It’s not the kind of suitcase anyone would bother to lock. Inside there’s nothing but a handful of cedar balls, keeping the suitcase fresh and sweet, ready. The lining is stained where a bottle of shampoo leaked.

For a moment flames move closer and closer, calling out my name like children. This is all the room in the world now; this is what’s left for me. What can I take, what can I take?

I zip up the suitcase, shove it back in the closet.

* * *

The Weekly Readers finally arrive, and we read about whales. So I set everyone to drawing a picture of what an underwater castle would look like.

“Would there be electricity?” Leo asks.

“Sure,” I say, and to give myself an extra fifteen minutes of blank space, I add, “Write a story about your underwater castle.”

But there’s a sudden jangle of noise, and I look at my watch: not lunch, not recess, not time to leave.

“Fire drill!” Leo shouts, and a couple kids bang their desks in excitement. Someone starts to cry.

“Remain calm!” I shout above the noise, “listen to me.” In the room above I hear desks pushed aside, small feet trampling to safety. “Stand up everyone,” I call, moving to the door. “Row by row walk out the hall, down the stairs, and move away from the building to the right, towards the playground.” Those were the xeroxed instructions for Room 223 that I’d had to recite to the principal on my first day here. There was no warning posted in the teachers’ lounge; is this the way the school drills, surprising everyone? Or is this for real? “Okay, Mandy, you’re the leader,” I say to the girl whose desk is closest to the door. “Down the stairs and to the right. Go to the playground. Everyone follow Mandy.” Scared voices spring up as children file past me: “Can I take my lunchbox?”

“Take nothing,” I say. “This is an emergency. We must leave the building as quickly as possible.”

“Is this real?”

“We have to pretend it might be.”

The room is suddenly empty, except for the awful noise filling it up and what may be the smell of smoke or may be my imagination. I run to the window; there’s no principal at the door with a stopwatch, so maybe this is real. I grab at what’s on my desk and hurry out.

Outside, the children stand in neat rows, their silence a reflection of the teachers’ worried faces. So this is not the way the school drills. “Someone saw smoke,” a teacher whispers in my ear. I count my line of children again and again, getting 25 each time. Other teachers do the same.

Two fire trucks pull up, roaring and screaming around the circular drive.

The principal fluidly passes through the crowd. “It was just a small grease fire in the kitchen,” she tells us. “But better safe than sorry. The firemen are making sure everything’s back to normal.”

I tell my class, “Everything’s okay, and we’ll be inside soon. You guys were great. I’m real proud of you.”

But I’m the one who’s shaky, and I turn so they won’t see. In my hand I hold the pictures of the suitcases that I was going to hang around the room today. This is what I brought.

I look down at the cement; it’s that sparkly kind, swirling and snapping with magic fairy dust. But you can’t take out the sparkles–they’re caught in the concrete–though as a child I roughed up my fingernails trying.

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About Leslie Pietrzyk

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon Books) and A Year and a Day (William Morrow). Her short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Gettysburg Review, New England Review, and The Sun magazine. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and she has won a number of writing awards, including Shenandoah’s Jean Charpiot Goodheart Prize for Fiction. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. She teaches at the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Program’s graduate writing program, the Writer’s Center, and Converse College’s low-residency MFA program. Raised in Iowa, she now lives in Virginia.

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