Fiction from Jane Snyder
Little Red Schoolhouse
My mother and father were in a good mood the day they put us on the train, full of fun.
It was Saturday and they stayed upstairs for a long time. When they came down they sat on the couch with us, watching Underdog, said nothing about it being time to do our chores.
After the cartoons they played the Christmas record we loved, purchased during the first year of their marriage before they had us, and danced to “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer Mambo,” my father swooping and dipping my mother, then tangoing sharply from the bookcase to the TV, from the TV to the Christmas tree, and back.
When they fell, panting, back onto the couch, Finn, our Irish Setter, jumped in the middle, pushed them apart, ground his hind quarters into the couch cushion, licked my father’s face.
“That’s the same tongue he licks his butt with,” my mother said primly, folding her hands in her lap. “And other things. I don’t want to say what.”
“Aw, sweetheart,” my father said, “can I help it if he finds me attractive?”
We laughed and laughed.
Lunch, Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo Soup, wasn’t on a level with the rest of the morning, but we ate the dull-colored bits of vegetable at the bottom of the bowl without complaining.
When we were done Suzie asked if there was dessert.
My mother said we didn’t need it; there would be refreshments on the Santa Train.
Oh, yes, they said, when we didn’t know what that was. A surprise for you. After lunch, we were going to the train station so Suzie and I could go for a ride on a train, a special train just for children. Santa was the only grownup allowed.
I was nine, didn’t care about Santa.
We’d ride the train out of the station for an hour or so, my mother said, then the train would turn around. When it came steaming back into the station they’d be there, waving at us.
My father smiled at me. “You’ll like that, won’t you, Cathy?”
I didn’t answer.
Suzie wasn’t sure what to think of a train that didn’t go anywhere.
My mother said it was a party train, where we could celebrate Christmas with other children.
“Look at that sunshine,” my father said on the way to the car. “You girls have a great day for an adventure.”
It had snowed during the night, a fine dry snow that sparkled like granulated sugar atop the dirty piles of old snow.
My father told us to be sure to be looking out the window when the train turned around. The engine would drive onto what was called a railroad turntable, a wheelhouse, to change tracks, and this would be interesting for us to see.
Inside the station we heard a PA announcement about a train just in from the North Pole. “That’s us,” Suzie said, grabbing my hand. She pointed to the signboard. “See? Platform A. That’s where we go.”
“Platform A is the only platform,” my father told her.
Suzie let go of my hand, looked confused. My mother frowned.
My father said it was good she’d listened to the announcement because someday she might be in a bigger station and then she’d need to know which platform to go to.
My father was wrong about Santa being the only adult. A woman in a white dress like a nurse’s uniform, but limper, was standing beside the steps up to the train, yelling. “No pushing! You won’t get on the Santa train no faster if you push.”
“Whoa, Trigger,” my father said. Another father turned and grinned at him.
My mother told us the woman was called a matron. She’d help us if we needed something.
We were the last on because Suzie had hung back, and we were on the wrong side of the train for waving goodbye.
The inside of the train resembled a school bus. Bench seats covered in peeling brown leatherette, no springs to facilitate bouncing. Two older girls across the aisle from us were sliding back and forth, good-naturedly trying to shove each other onto the floor. The matron grabbed the girl closest to me by the back of her windbreaker, yanked her down into her seat.
I wanted to go from compartment to compartment, check out the bathroom, walk onto the outdoor platform at the rear of the car and look down at the tracks, but Suzie fell asleep as soon as the train began to move and slumped against my shoulder.
The matron came through, thrust Frosty the Snowman coloring books at us, told us to color something nice for Santa.
“We can’t color without crayons,” the girl she’d yanked observed.
“Am I going to have more trouble with you?”
The matron wasn’t prepared for this, told the girl to watch it, just watch it, before she stalked away.
“Bitch,” the girl said to her departing back.
She was clearly not a nice girl, nobody I’d be allowed to play with.
She and her sister wore jeans, torn at the knees. My mother had us put on the dark green jumpers and lace trimmed blouses she’d made us for early Christmas presents, in case there were pictures with Santa.
The bitch girl asked me my name, said it was stupid when I told her.
I agreed, thought her name, Janet, was better. Her sister’s name was Beverly and I liked that too.
Janet said my hair was pretty, like a Breck girl’s.
Her own hair, and Beverly’s, was cut short, almost as short as a boy’s.
Mine doesn’t usually look this nice, I told her. My mother had washed it yesterday morning for the Christmas party at school, put lemon juice in the cream rinse to make it shine. Usually I wore it in a single thick braid so that, my father said, I resembled George Washington.
Wouldn’t it be fun to have it extra pretty for the school party, my mother had asked on Friday morning after my father had gone to work and Suzie to school.
I said I wasn’t going to the party. If I started crying I wouldn’t be able to stop.
“You like parties. I think you should go.” My mother had been sympathetic up to this point, letting me sleep in, now she seemed to think I was taking things too far.
“I can put a nice soft curl in your hair.”
She drove me to school after lunch, saying my hair might still be a little damp and she wouldn’t want me to catch cold.
During the night my father had pushed me into a wall. I’d hit the right side of my face, hurting my ear.
I lifted a strand of hair to show Janet and Beverly.
Yesterday the outside of my ear had been bright red. Today it was dusky, the color of a turkey’s wattle.
I’d gotten up in the night, convinced it was morning and I was late for something important.
I don’t believe I could have made much noise, just standing in front of the mirror brushing my hair. Suzie, in her bed under the window, didn’t stir, but my father was a light sleeper.
I didn’t hear him till he was standing behind me. He was angry because I woke him.
He took the hairbrush from me, hit me with it. What did I think I was doing, he asked, waking the whole house?
Maybe I was still dreaming because I couldn’t figure out what was happening, was confused, not frightened. Being hit didn’t hurt.
Whack. Whack. What. What.
I told him I was getting ready, fixing my hair.
He laid down the brush, grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me.
I may have been wobbly from what was, in fact, a real beating.
It was an accident, he told my mother when she came in, wanting to know what was going on. I slipped, he said, fell sideways into the wall, knocking off the mirror. He’d caught the mirror on its downward slide.
It would have been bad if it broke, he said.
I got back in bed, pulled the blankets over my head.
I can’t remember if I cried but he did, big rusty sobs.
Suzie lay still, playing possum.
The side of my face hurt.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” my father said to my mother. “I’d finally gotten to sleep and she was making all that racket.”
I’d done it before, she said, woke up in the night, thinking it was time for school. “You knew that, knew all you needed to do was put her back in bed.”
“I’m so tired,” he said in his hoarse crying voice.
He told my mother it was unlikely, but possible, I’d get a cauliflower ear.
What they had to watch out for, he told my mother, was a sac of fluid forming on my external ear during the next 48 hours. If one did, he’d drain it, to stop the cauliflower ear from forming. A special needle was required, he said, something larger than what my mother used for sewing, but you could get them at the drugstore. No need to go to the doctor.
I told Janet and Beverly about my father shoving me but not about the hair brush. I didn’t want them to know I was still being spanked.
They asked to touch my ear.
I could see they were bad girls, liable to do anything. Today was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say bitch out loud. Starts with a b and rhymes with witch was as far as anyone went at school. What if, for the pure joy of hearing me scream, they pinched my ear, dug their dirty fingernails in deep, left a sac of fluid where none had been before?
“Okay.” They had to come to me, because of Suzie. Both of them looked down at her sleeping head, smiled.
Janet said she was sweet.
Beverly said she looked like Caroline Kennedy.
“She does, but Cathy is prettier.” Janet said, running her fingertip down my outer ear. “Feel that,” she said to her sister. “It’s still hot.”
I turned a little, so they could examine the back of my ear, looked out the window on Suzie’s side. Nothing to see but snow.
Beverly couldn’t get over the sight of my ear. “You shouldn’t let him get away with it.”
Janet asked me if I was on the rag yet.
I didn’t know what she meant.
“Auntie Flo,” she said. “The Red Badge of Courage. Your period.”
“Oh.” My breasts had started developing when I was eight. My mother, thinking this might mean I’d have the menarche early, had given me a box of pads and told me about periods. It seemed so farfetched, so disgusting, I hoped it wasn’t true. “No.”
They hadn’t started theirs either, they said, but they knew about periods. Their big sister’s were awful, hurt as bad as having a baby. But the good thing was, once you started having periods no one could lay a hand on you. The school, your dad, nobody. And not just when you were having your actual period. Any time. No one could touch you.
Even when we were on the train I thought what they were telling me was one of those things that should be true but probably wasn’t.
“Say,” Janet said, “here’s one I’ll bet you haven’t heard. ‘Why is the little schoolhouse red?’”
“I don’t know.”
“You’d be red too, if you had six periods a day.”
I enjoyed this joke, wished I knew someone I could tell it to.
Janet and Beverly had more.
A party, as my mother had promised. I didn’t notice when the train turned around.
Suzie woke as we were approaching Fargo, said she was thirsty.
We were too, we told her. We could use a pop, we all agreed, and where were the treats we were supposed to get? The matron was mean. We hated the Santa train.
And we didn’t really go any place, Suzie said.
The matron came through the train then, telling us to take everything with us, anything you leave on the train you aren’t getting back, line up by your seat, get off as soon as the train stops.
“You could be on TV,” I told Janet as we stood in the aisle. “You’re pretty and you’re funny, funnier than anybody I know, and you’re nice and you know what to say and you’re not shy and you look so cute with your pixie cut. You could be like that lady on Party Line, Verna.”
“Verna Newell,” she said softly, smiling.
Santa was standing beside the steps when we got off the train, with nothing for us but the little candy canes they gave out everywhere in December, at the Piggly Wiggly, the bank, the S&H Green Stamp Redemption Center.
Janet waved hers away. “Keep it, Fat Boy. You need it more than I do.”
When my mother saw us she swooped Suzie up, felt her forehead. “She’s sick as can be, poor baby. Francis, we shouldn’t have let them go.”
I lost sight of Janet and Beverly.
My father laid his cold hand across my forehead. “You could fry an egg.”
Usually my father stuck his hands under my arms to lift me which hurt. Today he bent down, pulling me to him, before he stood with me in his arms.
He was sorry, he said again.
He should have asked me if I wanted to be carried, I thought.
My ear had looked fine this morning, he said, nothing to drain, but he was sorry, he really was. He’d make me a Coke float when we got home. Wouldn’t that be nice? Something cold because I was hot.
“I’m sorry, Cathy.”
I reached under my curtain of hair, ran my finger over my ear.
“It’s all right.”
Jane Snyder‘s stories have appeared in Umbrella Factory, Broadkill Review, and Bull. She lives in Spokane.
Such care with domestic and physical detail makes the shock toward the end sharper, as the character felt it. Thank you!
Thank you. I really appreciate your reading my story.