By Jane Frances Gilles
Monica stepped onto the boulevard, the border between the neighborhood and the park. Cool grass brushed her feet between her sandal straps. It had been mowed today, she could tell, and she worried that her sandals might get stained. Concentrating, she placed each foot straight up and straight down. For the first time ever, Mother had allowed Monica to go alone to the park. All the way there, she had imagined playing on the playground without Mother watching, cautioning.
Entering the park, Monica looked up. There were so many kids on the playground. The Smith girls were here, one Sis’s age, one her own age, and one in between. They lived five blocks away in a fancy white house with green shutters. On the monkey bars their bodies wriggled and swung as they reached for one bar, then the next. Each wore a pair of culottes, which Monica had been unsuccessful in convincing Mother to buy for her. As usual, Monica wore hand-me-downs from Sis. Watching the Smith girls, Monica put her hands in the pockets of her faded pink shorts. In the left pocket she felt a piece of penny candy she had bought with her allowance. She told herself she would eat it on the way home.
So fast as to create a blur, the roundabout spun, four children riding it, the biggest of them kicking the ground to keep it moving. After a moment Monica realized it was Ned Wood who was spinning the roundabout, his jet-black hair appearing almost blue from a distance. During the school year, Ned walked to school alone. He ate lunch alone, his dark eyes watchful. Whenever Mrs. Dahl allowed it, he studied alone while the rest of the class worked in groups. If Sis were here, she’d have a theory about why Ned Wood was spinning the roundabout for a bunch of little kids.
Monica looked to the slide, her favorite. There were two slides, actually, a small one that went straight down, and a big curving one made of hills and valleys. A set of stairs led to a platform supporting a tin roof painted yellow. From this platform, the small slide was reached. Next, a ladder led up and up to another platform, covered by another yellow roof, this one embellished with orange stripes. Here was the entrance to the big slide. Monica had graduated to the big slide last year, an achievement that brought her pride. Sometimes in bed at night, she thought of the long, twisting slide. She felt her bangs blowing off her face, felt her body lean inward and slightly back against the shiny metal, riding the curves, seeking freedom, forgetting all else.
Monica saw five children at the slide – three boys from her class and two girls from Mrs. Johnson’s class. They raced up the stairs, then the ladder, careened down the big slide, shouted to one another, and laughed in such a way that she felt excluded, even though she had just arrived, even though she knew they had not seen her at the edge of the playground, hoping to slide. Monica faced again the freshly mown grass, raised and lowered each foot with care, and followed the sidewalk home, where Mother would be waiting.
“How was your time at the park?” Mother’s polka-dot house dress flared as she turned from her work in the kitchen. “You certainly weren’t gone long.”
“Okay? Just okay? What does that mean?”
Monica took a halting breath before explaining, “There were too many kids there.” Her eyes dropped, her mind swirling like the pattern of the kitchen flooring before her.
“Too many kids? How can there possibly be too many kids at a park?” Mother turned to the kitchen counter. “You should see each of those children as an opportunity for friendship.”
“I’m sorry,” Monica said to Mother’s back.
Busy preparing apples for pie, Mother continued, “Your sister would find joy in a park full of children. Happiness! I only wish you’d have half her spunk.” Sliced apples made a gentle plopping sound as Mother dropped them into the water in the big yellow mixing bowl. “Did you take off your sandals? I don’t want dirt traipsed through the house.”
Monica backed out of the kitchen, waiting to see if Mother had more to say. When Mother began humming to herself – no recognizable tune, just pitches strung together in her lilting soprano voice – Monica felt safe exiting the room.
Sheltered within the walls of the bedroom, door ajar as Mother expected, Monica sat on her bed, one of two twin beds in the small room. She glanced over at Sis’s school notebooks stacked haphazardly next to her bed and thought about the day when she would be old enough to have a separate notebook for each subject. She lay back, sinking into the chenille bedspread – hers white with a design of yellow tulips at the center, Sis’s similar but featuring a bouquet of violets. Monica thought about the park. She had wanted the big slide to herself today, no one looking at her, no questions. Maybe another day, soon. As her eyes slipped closed, Monica reminded herself that she must straighten the bedspread as soon as she got up.
Mother’s voice brought Monica from a dream: Sis on the slide ahead of Monica, gripping her ankles. Both laughing. Momentum carrying them fast around the curves. Sis yelling, “Hang onto me.”
“It’s time to set the table for dinner,” Mother said as she opened the bedroom door. “Wash your hands first. Don’t dilly dally.” She twirled on her heels, humming again, and was down the hallway in a flash.
Monica straightened the bedspread, making certain the flower pattern was centered in the middle of the bed. She paused to look at Sis’s bed, her flowers slightly askew as always.
Monica blinked her eyes awake in the bright kitchen. The turquoise walls were brilliant in the light streaming in from the western sky. Careful to place each piece of silverware close to its neighbor without touching, Monica set the table as formally as she knew how. She folded the white paper napkins, hearing in her mind Mother’s frequent proclamation, “We may not have all the money in the world, but that’s no reason to set aside high standards.” As was the custom for the past three months, Monica set four places at the table, even though there would be only three for dinner.
“Dinner smells great! What are we having, honey?” Father strode through the back door, kicking off his shoes and hanging his hat in the hallway. “Is it pork? Smells like pork.” Like he did every day, Father greeted Monica with a ruffle of her hair and a pinch of her cheek.
“No, we’re having hamburger hotdish with an Italian twist – a new recipe from Charlene. She says it’s a winner!” Busy at the sink, Mother added, “Go wash your hands, Burton, and join us when you’re ready.”
Half seated at this point, Father stood again, winked at Monica, and headed to the bathroom. Mother put dinner on the table – the hotdish, a bowl of boiled peas from the garden, and four baked potatoes. There would be warm apple pie for dessert. During dinner, Monica and Father were quiet while Mother recounted her day.
After helping Mother with the dishes, Monica descended the basement stairs. Even though she would soon be a fourth grader and knew she should be brave by now, Monica was still afraid of the basement. She hated how dark it was, even when daylight shown through the narrow windows. Last week she had been startled by a spider crossing her path when she retrieved pickles from the pantry. This evening she walked toward the light spilling out of Father’s workshop onto the concrete floor. As she approached, she heard a hetch-hetch-hetching sound.
Monica stood in the doorway, not wanting to startle Father. She knew about the dangers to be found in a workshop. She looked over to Father’s reading chair in the corner. The seams on the seat cushion were split in a few places, and even from the doorway she could smell its musty odor. Sometimes Father let Monica sit in the chair while he worked. She would look at Father’s book – there was always one novel from the library setting on an upended cardboard box next to the chair. Monica liked paging through those novels and puzzling over big words she hadn’t yet learned in school.
The hetching sound stopped as Father took a moment to wipe his brow. Monica cleared her throat to announce her presence.
Father turned, a broad smile on his face. “Hello, sweetheart! He removed his safety glasses and walked toward her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I’m using the plane to smooth some wood for that bench I told you about.”
“Can I watch?”
Father smiled. “May I,” he said with a wink.
“Sure thing. Put on these safety glasses and stand over here.” He led her to a spot on the floor at the far end of the long workbench. Wood shavings flew up and to the side, each of them catching the light from Father’s task lamp before dropping. The smell of the wood reminded Monica of new pencils at the start of a school year. Hoping to see better, she moved closer. She felt a tingle run through her, a feeling of excitement at watching Father work. Father turned his back to her, blocking the curled shavings from flying in her direction.
Finally, he turned to Monica. “Sweetheart, don’t you have some chores to do? Or maybe a good book to read?”
As she climbed the stairs, the smell of the wood and the sounds of the plane faded to nothing.
Coo-OO-oo-oo. Coo-OO-oo-oo-oo. Mourning doves outside her open window woke Monica the next morning. Then she heard sounds of the railyard two blocks away where Father was already at work: the chugging of idling trucks waiting to unload; a squeal of brakes, a deep rattle, and a defining clank as two railway cars coupled; and, barely perceptible, the shouts of workers above the din. Monica found the noises of the railyard comforting, a regular reminder of Father.
Mother was working at the stove when Monica dragged into the kitchen – teeth brushed, hair combed, face and hands washed to please Mother – yet not fully awake.
“Good morning, dear. There are scrambled eggs ready for you – I’ve kept them warm in the oven. Make yourself a piece of toast.”
Monica gazed out the kitchen window as she ate, watching the neighbor Tillie and her little dog Pixie. A dachshund mix, Pixie was always at Tillie’s side, following along while she trimmed bushes, tended her garden, or watered her many pots of flowers. Monica wanted a dog. She pined for a little pup who might follow her throughout her own day. Secretly, she planned to wish for a dog when she blew out the candles on her birthday cake in September.
“As soon as I have this apple sauce ready to cool, we’ll get to work. You will weed the vegetable garden today.”
First thing most mornings, Monica and Mother worked in the yard. Monica’s favorite job was watering the moss roses that rimmed the driveway. She loved tending to these many-colored blooms, each boasting a joyful yellow pom at the center. Weeding the garden was Monica’s second favorite task. She liked seeing her progress as she worked between each row, and she felt a sense of accomplishment when she finished.
Squatting to pull the weeds that had sprouted between the peas and carrots, Monica felt the prickling heat of the sun through her summer blouse.
“Remember, don’t grab at the top. Get the root! If you learn to pull weeds like your sister, you’ll be an expert gardener.”
Last summer, Sis taught Monica to weed: “Mother doesn’t like to get her fingers dirty,” Sis said that bright June day, “but it’s the only way to do it right. Take off your garden gloves, and grab the weed low, like this.” Sis’s forefinger and thumb followed the weed’s stem down and down, met the surface of the soil, then dipped slightly below, pinching the weed and pulling it straight up, root attached. “Tah-dah! That’s exactly what you want. All the whole root. Just look at the dirt under my nails – that is how you get the root. Now you try it.” As the bright sun ducked behind a cloud, Monica moved to the next weed and squatted as low as possible, mimicking Sis. Up came the weed with the root intact. “You did it! Great job, Moo.” Proud of her small accomplishment, and happy to hear Sis use the pet name she had given her as a baby, Monica beamed.
Now Monica heard Tillie calling to Mother across the yard. “Good morning, neighbor!” Monica looked up from her weeding.
For the first time in weeks, Mother didn’t make an excuse; she joined Tillie on the driveway for a morning chat. Little Pixie sat at Tillie’s feet, seemingly transfixed by the conversation, his head snapping back and forth between the women as though he were watching a tennis match high above him. Focused on her weeding, Monica didn’t hear much of what was said. She hummed the melody of the piece she had been practicing for tomorrow’s piano lesson. Then she heard Tillie mention Sis. Monica turned her head to listen.
“Oh, we’re doing fine,” was Mother’s reply. “Just fine!”
“Well, hun, I worry,” Tillie said,” and I’m here to help in any which way I can. You and Burt have always done so much for me.”
Mother shook her head. “Oh, don’t be silly.”
“I’m not being silly at all. For crying out loud, I lost track of how many wonderful meals you made for me after my surgery last year.” Tillie reached for Mother’s hand. “Let me know what I can do for you, please. I’m an old lady, but, like a lame mare, I can still be of good use now and then.”
“You are most certainly not an old lady. Why, your beautiful flowers are the best on the block. And my goodness, just think of all you do at church.” Mother charged on: “Say, I’ve been meaning to ask about your needlepoint project. How’s that coming?” Mother had succeeded in changing the subject.
Monica went back to her weeding.
“Keep your fingers curved. Try to touch the keys gently,” said Mrs. Halek. Monica was playing her scales at the start of her piano lesson, her first since school was out. Decorated in shades of green, Mrs. Halek’s living room was a tranquil refuge for Monica. Of course, Mrs. Halek herself had a lot to do with that. Her warm, easy way with children made her a popular piano teacher, and Monica had the sense that Mrs. Halek actually liked her.
“Wonderful, Monica. You have been practicing your scales this summer, I can tell. You should feel good about that.” In a quiet aside, Mrs. Halek added, “Many children skip their scales. I am proud of you – scales are fundamental.”
“Now, before I hear the piece you have been practicing, I would like to know how you are doing. It has been so long since your last lesson.” Mrs. Halek turned to face Monica.
“Fine. I – I’m just fine.” Monica repeated the words she had heard Mother say so many times in the last few months.
“I want you to know it is alright to be sad.” Mrs. Halek bent to bring her face even with Monica’s. “And if you feel like crying, well, that is alright, too.”
For a tiny moment, Monica felt emotion well up. She squelched it with a slight shake of her head.
“If you ever need to talk, you can come to me.” Mrs. Halek paused, watching Monica.
Feeling Mrs. Halek’s eyes on her, Monica tried to focus on the piano keys, admiring how they sparkled in the yellow light from the lamp that sat behind the music rack, illuminating both the music and the keyboard.
Mrs. Halek waited. Monica remained silent. “Well, sweetie, you decide if or when you are ready to talk, alright?”
Monica issued a slight nod. Her thoughts went to the piece she had prepared. She had worked hard on it, practicing even more hours than Mother required, and she had the feeling it was nearly perfect.
“Shall we take out your piece?”
Monica opened her piano book to “Summer Clouds,” her first piece in the Key of D. At the start, the piece flowed beautifully. Monica remembered to sit up straight, keep her fingers curved, and hold her wrists up. She remained conscious of the key signature and the need to play F-sharp and C-sharp, not F and C. Mrs. Halek encouraged Monica with words like “Nice” and “Lovely.”
Suddenly, Monica thought of Sis. While Monica played, Sis sang along in her mind, “La, fa-la – doo, doot-doo.” Jaunty and playful, Sis’s notes didn’t match the beat of Mrs. Halek’s metronome. Monica thought about Sis’s favorite saying: “Rules are made to be broken.” Monica’s fingers stumbled at the keyboard. Her shoulders drooped. She was only halfway through the piece, and she was losing her way. Without intending to, Monica began to sing, following her sister’s lead.
“Keep going. You can do this.” Mrs. Halek’s words sounded muffled, a dim background behind Sis’s beautiful voice. Monica’s fingers sought unsuccessfully for the right keys.
Abruptly, Sis’s singing stopped. Monica stopped playing. There were four measures left in the piece. Monica’s hands fell to her lap, and she felt Mrs. Halek’s arm around her shoulder.
As Monica left Mrs. Halek’s green living room, heading for the waiting car and Mother behind the wheel, a single tear fell.
“Hop in dear. How was your piano lesson?” Mother put the car in reverse and looked through the rear window of the Ford Galaxie as she backed out of the driveway. Her question was met with silence. Mother tried again: “How did you do at your piano lesson? Was Mrs. Halek pleased?”
“I want to go to the park.” Monica’s voice was nearly a whisper.
Mother paused. She waited. Finally, she dove in again: “Did something happen?” Again, silence. “This is a busy day for me, Monica. I can’t interrupt everything to rush off to the park. Perhaps we can go another day.”
“You let me go alone before. You can drop me off.” Monica’s tone was firm, yet she was speaking so quietly, Mother could barely hear her.
They drove on, and Mother began humming – high notes, a happy melody. At a stop sign, Mother started, “I just don’t think it’s a good idea, dear. You didn’t –” Then she looked hard at Monica. Shoulders hunched, hair falling across her face, hands fidgeting, Monica was the picture of dejection. “I suppose the park might lift your spirits. But are you sure you want to go alone? You were so unhappy the last time, you went straight to bed when you got home.”
“I want to go to the park.”
Mother’s eyes widened at the decisiveness in Monica’s voice. Without saying anything more, Mother drove to the park.
Monica closed the car door harder than she should. She knew Mother did not like to hear any door slammed. She surveyed the playground. Although several young children occupied the small slide, no one was playing on the big slide. Paying no attention to the wet grass at the edge of the park, the spilled sand around the sandbox, the bare ground near the roundabout – all of which could dirty her sandals – Monica walked straight to the slide.
She climbed the ladder to the first platform. There, a little boy with black hair approached Monica. She recognized him as one of the children Ned Wood had spun on the roundabout.
“Are you sad?” He studied her face. “You look sad.”
Monica stared at the boy. His t-shirt, too small for him, was frayed at the neckline. His sneakers were stained and well worn. Monica kept staring.
The boy moved a step closer. “Ned said your sister died. Is that why you’re sad?” Monica took a sharp breath. She stepped back from the boy. His dark eyes followed her. “I was sad when our daddy died.”
Monica stumbled down the steps. She ran, arms and legs swinging wildly. For the second time that day, sounds became muffled around her, and she heard Sis singing, this time their own version of a song they had sung together years before: “Sis and Moo went up a hill to fetch a pail of water, Sis fell down and broke her crown and Moo came tumbling after. Lah, la-la-la, la-la-lah . . .”
Tillie’s car rounds the curve on the street adjacent to the park. Little Pixie is on her lap, tongue hanging out and tail wagging. The windows are cracked open, and a gentle breeze floats around Tillie and Pixie, keeping them cool. On the radio, Tillie’s favorite afternoon host, Joyce Lamont, is reading her “Best Buy Recipe of the Day,” Never Fail Popovers.
“Pixie, I’m going to make those popovers when we get home, Tillie says. “I’ll give you a little bite.” She giggles.
Pixie shows his appreciation with a quick lick of Tillie’s chin.
“Stay still, Pixie,” Tillie says. “No more licking when I’m driving. Those popovers will be – Oh no! Monica, no!”
Running faster than she ever has, away from the little boy and out of the park, Monica doesn’t hear Tillie’s car coming. Instead, she hears only Sis’s singing. Tillie swerves to avoid hitting Monica. There is a squeal of brakes and a crunch of metal. Monica stops, frozen in the street, not noticing Tillie’s car lodged against a light pole. Unhurt, Tillie and Pixie peer out over the steering wheel at Monica who stares straight ahead, eyes blank. Sis’s singing continues, “Lah, la-la-la, la-la-lah. Lah, la-la-la, lah-lah.”
Neighbors flock to the scene. One by one they take in the spectacle, then check on Tillie. Some of them reach into the car to pet little Pixie, who is now shaking with fear. They watch Monica, forming a circle around the scene. Approaching police sirens interrupt Sis’s voice, and Monica recalls the wail of the ambulance siren the night of Sis’s last trip to the hospital, the echo of footsteps running down hospital hallways, Sis’s moans, the beeping of a machine next to Sis’s bed, Father’s voice telling Monica everything will be alright.
Now Mother is on her knees, holding onto Monica, her face wet with tears. Even at Sis’s funeral, Mother didn’t cry, telling everyone over and over, “I’m just fine.” Monica remembers overhearing Aunt Kate’s reply to Mother: “No you’re not fine. You need to let go.” Here in the street, Mother is unraveling. But Monica feels nothing. She is lost in the heartache of having a sister who is gone and yet so present. Every minute of every day.
Monica pulls herself from Mother’s grasp, turning to enter the park once again. Mother’s sobs rise above the distant clanging of the railyard. With neighbors watching, themselves now frozen in the street, Monica walks into the park, her gaze focused on the yellow and orange roof at the top of the slide. Monica climbs up and up. She steps onto the surface of the big slide, shimmering in the sun. She sits, waits a moment, takes a deep breath, then gives herself a push. The wind whips her bangs, and Monica leans back, riding the hills and valleys, hugging the curves.
Jane Frances Gilles is a writer and former educator living in Minnesota. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English education and a Ph.D. in education policy. “Sliding” is Jane’s first published work of fiction.