A Lesson In Friendly Letters

by Laura Ingram


I guess I’ll take that as a no.” Caroline finagles with her fountain pen. She startedwearing Christmas earrings in October, has school headshots of her nieces and nephewsplastered to the front of her filing cabinet.  No matter how hard I try, I cannot hate her.

 “Huh?”

 “I asked if you wanted to spend the Holidays with me and my family.”

 “I’d love to, but  I’m going home.”
“Someone special you want to see?”
  “I suppose you could say that.” I smooth my skirt over scabby knees.

 I am the youngest person The Oakland Herald has ever hired.  I am 10-point Times NewRoman, double-jointed and double-spaced, popping my knuckles and smearing my eyeliner,taking all the articles nobody else on the staff can be bothered to write; obituaries, every malestudent in the middle school coming to school in short-short’s to protest the dress code–all thelocal news that seems too far away to think about.

 I make notes about new standardized tests on the train to Tennessee, drink a kind ofcoffee I can’t stand. I’ve never taken a train before. There’s something to be said for the rattlingbeneath your pelvic bones, as if we are all trapped in the Grace Period, but there isn’t any cloudshine today. There’s rain on the window and runoff in my lungs.

There’s a teenage boy across the aisle, eating a bagel with tomatoes on top, and Iremember Noah stealing them from the bin in front of the grocery store, eating them whole,writing me letters on the back of his mother’s lists, the same every time, Pickles, Skim Milk,
Peanut-butterHey, loser, chivalry’s not dead yet, I left the screen door open for you, or Mar, Ireally need to talk to you, not about something though, about everythingdo you know thatkoalas are actually really mean and three mile island is only two and a half miles long and this
stupid list just isn’t long enough. 
I scribbled haikus for him in the margins of my math homework, and I miss him most inthe early morning, when he’d eat most of my breakfast before the boarders were up, both of uslistless as a lesson and sometimes I got sick in Miss Spencer’s perfect shrubbery and other timeshe’d swear and smoke the butts of his dad’s cigarettes, or tug his sleeves down to cover sleepcolored spots, scattering insomniac skin, and I sat on the grass and listened to him shiver,morning cold and inside cold and I loved him and loved him until I was empty, behind closeddoors and an open notebook again.
    ***
The girl next to me nudges my shoulder. Her hair looks like chewed conversation hearts and her shoes split in six places.

“Can I bum a cigarette?”
I grit my teeth, give her the half-empty pack of Marlboros out of my bag, and spend therest of the ride locked in one of the two toilet cubicles, holding onto my elbows, remembering.

 My mother could not bear the thought of me becoming a poet. She slung  me onto oursagging couch, my eyes eclipsing off axis, her closed face blurry as birth,

 “Margaret, ideas can be exchanged without all this fancy talk. Words are the source ofmost misunderstandings. Why can’t we just sit close and know?”
 I wanted to stomp my feet and shake her, wanted to open the attic window and screamevery word left undefined by my K-8  education, but I couldn’t.

 Later, when she went downstairs to play the piano for Mr. Milford who ironed his ownshirts, my favorite boarder to date, I tore every used sheet out of my seven spiral notebooks andstuffed them into my school bag.

 I kept writing.

     ***

 There is no loneliness like a dirt road in December.  I will always be Virginia Slim andwafting towards the woods, and I remember myself with long hair and a short skirt, in awe of myneighbors with porcelain ships on their mantles and paper trails listing in their attics.

 My mother waits on the stoop, shelling green beans, wearing her shower cap and herfavorite pineapple print night gown.

 “Mama, did you read my write-up on the eight year old who donated a kidney to hisfather? Mr. Johnson says I may get a promotion soon if I keep increasing community increase.”

 “That’s nice Margaret, why don’t you be a dear and boil some potatoes?”
She starts humming along to a song I’ll never learn, dropping the unshelled beans back in thebucket.

 “Mama?”

 We have a new guest, why don’t you go introduce yourself, an eccentric little man, usedto play the oboe in the Nashville symphony and is in training to be a professional puppeteer.”
 Mama!”

 The two of us stagnant against the screen door, just like old times, trying to staple thesoles back onto secondhand sneakers.

 “He isn’t” she sucks in a breath “here anymore.” 

 “You mean his dad let him accept the scholarship?”

 She tugs the neckline of her nightshirt, puckers her mouth, hands wrinkled and lurid aslove.

    ***
 
 She has replaced the pineapples with cabbage roses, and the Santa Claus sheets I sleep onyear round have been shoved to the back of the linen closet, beneath a half dozen Hawaiian-themed tablecloths. We’ve been sleeping in the attic since we started renting the rooms. 

 Sixteen white cassettes teeter on my pillow . Noah’s car is so old he doesn’t have a CDPlayer, and in high school we’d seize the engine sometimes to grapple the city, feeling graffiti swerve through our fingers.

 I slit open the envelope, cringing at the sound of the acrylics I got last week scratchingthe seal. My heart has been replaced with.

 “He didn’t leave me an address or anything, how am I supposed to go see him?”

 “He’s gone honey. He—“

 “When?”

 “The doctors took heroic measures–”

 “When?” I am at the low end of eleven again, stuffing my training bra with colored Kleenex, shaving my legs with ivory soap, saying the Our Father backwards every night, because whoever is in charge doesn’t give a damn about what’s supposed to come first.

 “Tuesday.”

 His letter flutters to the floor. My mother smoothes my hair.

 I take three steps back, stomach swiveling. She doesn’t need to say anything else; already I know completely he choked alone, left hand over his heart, pledging allegiance to the American ache.

 His doctor prescribed sleeping pills sophomore year. He never took one, told me he liked to listen for the late train or read old comic books backwards, but he kept the blue bottle in the medicine cabinet.
 He never took one, told the doctor to up the dosage.

I cringe into myself, clutching fistfuls of words, reading and re-reading the see you soon!’

 “What good are the words?” I say it out loud, read it in the ink underneath  myfingernails, and I have always been afraid of whatever it is that is standing over me. Grief comessudden as a penumbra, until I crouch on the ground shredding a stack of my own editorials, Whatgood are the words, when all I ever say is “sorry”, “excuse me” “I’m on my way” ; I never tookmuch time to write for him, although the issue arose often enough in the reject pile I rootedthrough most mornings, suicides in student unions, “don’t ask don’t tell.”  I always avoided it, butNoah rooted for me anyway, and his name at this point is his only detriment. It tramples myhippocampus, trips my cerebellum.

 It makes me cry.

 I call Caroline.

 “Tell Mr. Murray that I don’t work for him anymore. She doesn’t ask why, or even howI am, but she doesn’t click off either.

 “I am afraid.” I say, wrapping the telephone cord around my ring finger.

 “Is there a reason for that?”

 “Several.”
 “Not really.”

 “Would it help to write it down?”

 “Thank you.”

 “For What?”

 “I’m not really sure right now, I just think thank you is slightly less over used thansorry.

“Merry Christmas, Margaret.”

I rummage around under my mattress, pull out the sheaf of loose leaf, held together with staples and Ouchless Scrunchies, his name dribbling down every first draft.
Mar,

 I tried writing and re-writing this, but it doesn’t come out the way I want it to. I never put thepen down, though. I hope you don’t, either. Wow, that was really dumb. I miss you most when I
walk by the bookstore or Miss Spencer’s house, and I really hope you like the music. There’s something I need to tell you, but I need to sleep now. I’m so tired, Mar. I hope your boss steps on a Lego everyday until he gives you the position you deserve.

 I’d had a pencil in my hand since I got off the train.

 See you soon!

 Noah.

 I keep writing.

Author Bio: Laura Ingram is a tiny teen with large glasses. Her work has been previously published in Gravel Magazine, Jet Fuel Review, The Cactus Heart Review, Life in 10 Minutes, Canvas Lit, Forrest for the Trees, Tallow Elder Quarterly, The Noisy Island, The Crucible, If and Only If, Assonance Lit, Juked Literary Journal, Allergo Poetry, and few others she’s always bound to forget. She is also a student writer for The Odyssey online. Laura is 18 years old. She enjoys most books and all cats.