“Funny day,” Dickie Sablich says, looking up, climbing in his mother’s car. It’s a beautiful day, bright blue in Duluth, where autumn comes early to light up the bluffs in a deciduous panic. His hand sticks in a mysterious congelate as he pulls himself onto the vinyl seat.
“What do you mean?” his mother asks. She licks a finger and rubs at a stain on Dickie’s shirt.
“I mean the air’s yellow,” he says, closing the door, wiping congelate-stains on his shorts.
“I don’t understand.”
They’re cozy in the car’s little cabin now, just the two of them. Ignition switched on, in reverse down the steep driveway, Ella Fitzgerald on the radio.
“You can see the air and normally you can’t see the air but you can because it’s yellow,” he says.
Dickie’s mother stares at the sky, stooping over the steering wheel, accidentally running a stop sign.
“I think I see what you mean,” she says, and she does, think that.
Dickie looks at his mother.
“Maybe it’s the yellow fellow,” he says.
“What is? Who’s that?”
“I don’t know. The guy who makes the air yellow!” Dickie says, and then laughs, hard. His mother looks at him, confused, and then she laughs too, grateful for the unexpected gifts from Dick’s world, its inexplicable humors. They are both laughing hard now and again she gives thanks for this moment, which causes the feeling to deepen and leak gently out from her eyes.
It is not yet 8 o’clock.
This is grace, she thinks. God’s good graces.
They arrive at Dickie’s school, a convent and cathedral. They say goodbye and she asks him if he has all his things and he says yes but he doesn’t. Ella Fitzgerald comes on again, that’s twice in a row, and she says tomato, tomato, then Dickie orders oysters, his mother cancels ‘ursters,’ and when the song is done, he walks into school, a little late.
Dickie dawdles into class and the nun threatens him with a ruler. He rushes over to the desk he shares with Mary Murphy. Mary looks nice in her clean-pressed uniform and the tangles of her long brown hair. He puts down his backpack and takes out his pencils, and smiles shyly at her. She smiles back and says hi, and he says hi, and she leans over to whisper I missed you.
Dickie is confident that when he inevitably falls prey to a sister’s wrath (again), Mary’s presence will protect him, at least partially. Mary once kicked Sister Freda. Mary was being punished for talking back, having her knuckles rapped, and she just up and kicked Sister Freda. Then the nun moved to retaliate in more serious censure, her ruler brandished high, and so Mary just up and kicked her again. The sister was startled, though she’d never admit it. ‘Everyone calm down now,’ S.F. had snapped, spinning her retreat as a truce.
It is the nuns who call Mary ‘Scary.’
“Numbers, everyone,” Sister Freda calls, and the class removes their arithmetic journals. Dickie has of course left his smooth green notebook somewhere in the clutter at home, and Mary gives him a piece of paper without him having to ask. Dickie begins drawing her a dog. “Let’s do the times tables for seven,” Freda says.
This is a fantastic development. Dickie knows seven from one to eleven, and a touch of funktionslust blooms as he writes three’s twenty-one. He gets to six or so and then hopes Mary might need his help, but alas, she is progressing well. He gets to seven’s seven, a shining forty-nine, and then his interest wanes, the cheap thrill souring into rote execution. The wide windows call to him, broad panels of blue cut right into the room and fill with colors, motions, hope for the unexpected.
And there is something unexpected. He can still see the air. He forgot about that. He wants to keep looking. He looks back to the room to gauge how much time he has. He sees bent heads over neat-columned desks and Sister Freda reading a novel. This is good. He looks at Mary’s paper and she’s at seven’s seven so he’d better just try to finish before returning to the window, and he does, up to eleven anyway and who cares about twelve.
Now he may return to his window, but he can’t remember what he was looking at. He tries to remember but becomes frustrated, a redness, a heat. Then Mary pokes him, and he forgets the frustration, too.
He looks to her. She points to her paper, where 7 x 9 levels a blank threat. Dick is thrilled. He shows six fingers, then three, and she scribbles. Their silent alliance reigns. Dick and Mary have made vows to wed as soon as they are able. They know none of the variables on which this is contingent except their own volition. This, more than any petty nuance, suffices.
Now Freda has closed her book.
“Alright then, let’s see how we all did,” Freda says, and moves for the chalkboard. She begins to write out the equations.
“Who knows seven times one?”
“Seven!” the class shouts.
“Yes okay that’s the easy one and next time I want hands up. Seven times two?” she asks. Freda sees Mary has raised her hand, and plans to ignore it. But as it happens, she doesn’t have the chance. Today, seven times two does not matter, because the siren is going off. There is panic and chitter. Everyone knows they are supposed to duck and cover, but nobody does. Sister Freda says stay calm, with her flat Scandinavian a’s. The students settle down, but Dickie is watching her, and she looks surprised.
“Now everyone knows that we treat drills the same as the real thing,” Freda says, “ so I want all of you under those desks. Go on. Hands over your heads,” she says. And so Scary Mary Murphy and the bastard Dickie Sablich now crawl beneath their desk, and they look at each other, curled tight in little balls.
They cannot believe their proximity, their privacy, their luck.
An hour has now passed. Sister Freda allows no one to use the bathroom, and Jake Olsson has peed his pants. Everyone is still covered but no one is ducking anymore; games are being played, at first to Freda’s chagrin, and now to her desperate insistence.
Ten minutes after the sirens went off the principal appeared at the small-windowed classroom door; he knocked twice, made eye contact with Sister Freda, and motioned for her to get down, fast, with a sharp point of his finger. She did so immediately, then barked out for silence.
Another ten minutes later, silence was ruptured by a fart, then broken again by laughter. The quiet gradually grew into talking, and singsong sharing, and the spastic games of children. Then when Ellis Ostman started crying from an anonymously inflicted indian burn, Sister Freda stood up, yelled two unintelligible words, and then held herself by the elbows, her head hung. She apologized, right there, for yelling. Sister Freda had never apologized before. She told them all to talk quietly, and asked them to be kind to each other. Then she repeated it. She asked all of them to please be kind to each other, and then went back under her desk.
At this point, Mary and Dick were in nearly paroxysmic joy. Beneath their shared desk was a private realm, where they existed only for each other, governed only by the laws they created. Sister Freda could not see them. They did not care for the opinions of their peers.
During the first five minutes of fetal hiding they’d scooted closer to each other so that their legs touched, and then as boredom and discomfort set in and the room began to uncurl, they took each other’s hands; Dickie’s clammy, Mary’s calm. At one point Olaf Gunnarson had felt the need to make a supposedly insulting remark about their affection, a rhyme malleable enough to include their names and insert their personages into a tree, where they then supposedly performed various would-be lewd acts. This was quickly silenced by Mary, who shaped her hand into a claw and shook it with ambiguous intention.
Now, sitting in the latent blue glow of the windows, the two of them were developing the language they would speak when they married, a private language that only they could understand, a language necessitated by their private kingdom which would be a big house in the forest but not too big, way out past even the gitchi-gami club and also right up against Superior where they could watch the water change colors and see the rain and the tanker ships and Mary could yell at the storms because that’s what she wanted to do.
They are adding flesh to their vocabulary when the man comes back to the window. He knocks twice and looks for Sister Freda. She stands up, he makes an ambiguous gesture, then tells her to get down, fast, with a sharp thrust of the finger, but she freezes. She stares at him. He points down again, and then, exasperated, runs on. She begins to speak, Ave Maria, she says, and then stops and asks the kids to say it with her. Ave Maria, gratia plena, she says, but not much of the class joins in until she screams briefly and asks them to say it along with her and then apologizes and starts from the beginning, Ave Maria, she says, and Dickie turns to Mary to say let’s get married now, we don’t have to tell anyone. Mary’s pupils dilate.
“They’ll never know,” Mary says, and squeals.
“They don’t have to.”
“Okay. All you have to do is say, ‘I do.’”
“And now I have to say it too–‘I do.’”
They both wait.
“Now we have to kiss,” Mary says, but she just looks at him.
She’s frozen, overwhelmed by the moment. She is frightened by it, Dickie sees. So is he. Sister Freda’s cyclic in her praying, Ave Maria. Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae, says the class. The bastard Dickie Sablich stares at Mary Murphy. In front of him, there opens a space, a small tear in the world, through which everything appears clear. He can see it very plainly. He gets to kiss Mary Murphy, now. All his fear leaves him, and in its place there is only opportunity, and the barest recognition of this chance. He has no language to comprehend any of this, but still, he understands that a rare gift is now delivered, to him. This is his time to kiss Mary Murphy, here, in this small tear in the world.
He is grateful.