August 12, 2009 in Wordsmoker Short Fiction
Sheila knows the rule. One foot on the floor or the ground. This applies generally, like gravity, the drinking age, or the certainty that a quadratic equation must equal zero, no matter what turns and twists it takes through bracketed x’s and y’s, squares and cubes. One foot. The rule applies specifically to pool, as her father explained at the basement table. To throwing a softball from short to first, as her coach insisted. To her brother’s strange but successful racewalking in Oregon.
She leans back onto her bed, draws up one leg, and, taking a breath, lists more applications. To oboe practice, even for hours, to keep her spine and diaphragm aligned, to tap time—quietly—on the floor. Once, both feet asleep and blood pooling in her calves, she started to bring up her legs. Mr. Reichling walked over and flicked the baton against her thigh. He said, sotto voce, sitting that way was fine for primitive peoples, but not for a white classical musician. She brought her feet down and tried to keep up with the strings and the pianist; Brahms couldn’t be disrupted, even from second chair. She missed a few notes anyway, swallowing tears and draining her sinuses.
She switches legs and arches her back.
When she was seven, and said she didn’t need naps, she fell asleep in the afternoon on her bed, this bed. The day after her tonsillectomy she fell asleep on the couch. But that wasn’t a nap. One foot stayed on the floor, a heel wedged into the shag carpet. Splitting hairs like that, it was said, she could become a lawyer. Perhaps. The SAT and LSAT are still to come.
She tenses her leg and shoulder muscles until they threaten to break out of her skin. Only one example is left, but she wants to go on listing, the way she did once on a history exam. When the hour was over, she had catalogued fifteen causes of the Civil War. Ten were enough for an A, but she had found a flow and a rhythm, remembering and writing, and couldn’t stop. But only one item remains. Men and women. When her parents watched Dick Van Dyke, old before she was born, they pointed out how Rob and Laurie Petrie kept a foot on the floor, even when they sat on their own double beds, as the censors had prescribed. That may not have been a bad idea, her mother said; maybe we should have tried that a little more often. She would add the same, exactly phrased piece of advice, “It’s too late for us, Sheila, but that might be a good idea when you have a boy over here. It will help you to set the right tone.”
She knows the rule, knows it in her muscles and joints, like a forehand swing, even if it doesn’t come to mind. She shifts her weight, for a moment keeps both feet down, then brings one up again, to the air, then the bed.
Above her, the boy pauses, then thrusts, trying to get back a rhythm momentarily broken. He doesn’t ask about the exam, the SAT, or throwing from short, or the oboe. Neither did the boy last week, or the others.
Once he restores the rhythm her foot takes it up, tapping andante. The tapping travels through the floorboards and the walls but diminishes on the way to the basement. It registers with her parents as familiar, comforting, as when she keeps time, sight-reading a new score.