Excerpt from The Biographies of Ordinary People, by Nicole Dieker
Natalie wore a red-and-white checked dress with strawberry buttons, and she could feel the ends of her hair brush her chin. She held on to Mommy’s purse with one hand as Mommy pushed the stroller and Meredith walked a few steps ahead, in her dress that was blue.
Yesterday Mommy had given them afternoon baths and then asked them to go out on the front porch and sit still while she cut their wet hair. She asked them not to put their feet near the broken part of the step because Daddy hadn’t fixed it yet. Then Mommy put one knee on each side of Natalie to hold her in place as she cut and combed and cut again, and pulled Natalie’s hair straight with her fingers to make sure it was even.
They all had just-alike hair now, all new-school just-alike hair and different colored barrettes that had come from the same package. Natalie’s barrettes were red, and Meredith’s was blue, and Jackie’s was yellow. Mommy had let them toss the old hair in the yard, for the birds. Meredith had not been happy.
Now they were going to school for Orientation. They were close enough that Natalie could see the tent. She had never seen a school with a tent before. When they lived in Portland, she had gone to preschool.
They stopped at the crosswalk and looked up and down the empty street for cars, because Rosemary knew you had to do it every time or one of her girls would forget, when they were older. She said the sing-song they had made up—”left, then right, then left again”—and heard three voices sing it along with her. Then they crossed, all together, Meredith not bothering to seek out her mother’s hand.
Rosemary knew Meredith was mad about the haircut. She had been watching the girls’ hair in the Midwestern humid heat, seen enough long sticky strands attach themselves to a sweaty neck or arm. Nat’s hair was like hers, which meant it looked thick and shiny no matter what, but Meredith and Jackie had Jack’s hair, which brushed out fine and smooth but ended up clustered in limp locks like the wax on a melting candle.
And now they all had neat hair, cut off their neck in sweet little-girl bobs, and Rosemary was the one who needed a haircut, but that would have to wait until after the girls were in school. She had used one of the girls’ elastics to pull her hair back into a ponytail, wondering if it made her look younger or just made her look silly. She hadn’t known what to wear to this event, so she put on a jean skirt and a T-shirt with pink stripes that felt nicer than the other ones. As she led her three girls under the tent she saw that most of the other moms were wearing shorts, and most of the kids were wearing shorts too. People in Kirkland only seemed to dress up for church.
“Rosemary!” Donna was of course wearing shorts, and the Kirkland College graphic on her T-shirt had started to come apart in rivulets. “Hello, girls! Natalie, don’t you look just like Strawberry Shortcake.”
Meredith knew that Natalie didn’t look like Strawberry Shortcake; Strawberry Shortcake had a bonnet and red hair and a pink dress with a white apron. Natalie had strawberry buttons down the front of her dress. And Donna hadn’t said anything about her, which Meredith knew to mean she didn’t look like anything. Her dress was blue checked, like Dorothy’s, but nobody would say she looked like Dorothy anymore because she didn’t have braids. She had short hair.
Meredith hated her hair because she no longer knew who to be. Sometimes when she was at church, or when her parents went shopping and they had to stand still and be quiet, she would pretend to be someone else and imagine what life would be like as them. What would Mary Ingalls be able to tell about the Methodist church just by listening to the people and feeling the rough fabric on the chairs?
And now it was harder to imagine herself as Dorothy, stepping out into a world of color, pretending that the grocery store was Oz and she hadn’t seen any of it before, staring at the shiny green apples next to the ones with the little brown spots. Not even when she was wearing a blue checked dress.
After she had gotten her hair cut she had gone upstairs and looked at the picture of Betsy in Betsy-Tacy and Tib, because she wanted to see someone whose hair looked like hers. Mom hadn’t let her keep a lock of hair, which would have made it a little better because she could have felt more like Betsy. Betsy’s hair grew back, and it didn’t stop her from making up stories.
And then Alex came running up, and she was wearing a blue dress like Meredith’s except hers had a fish print on it. “Do you want to meet our teacher?” she said. Meredith looked at her mom, hoping she would say yes. “She’s right over there,” Alex said, pointing to a blonde woman in a green jumper with an apple stitched on the pocket.
“Stay under the tent,” Rosemary said, “where I can see you.”
“You know,” Donna said, after they had gone, “she wanted to wear a dress today because of Meredith. They are already such a pair.”
Rosemary watched the two girls talking to their second-grade teacher and thought how grown up Meredith and Alex looked, engaging in this conversation. She saw Alex say something that made them all laugh, and then she saw Meredith say something that made them all laugh, and she saw her daughter smile again, the real smile that seemed so rare. Alex was a good friend for her, a nice smart girl who might help her kid relax a little.
“You make those dresses, right?” Donna asked. “That must be hard.”
“It isn’t that hard,” Rosemary said. She had been making clothes since she was a teenager. She and her best friend had spent Saturday afternoons picking out fabric and patterns for their prom dresses, and then cutting and sewing and taking turns pinning up each other’s hems. Rosemary remembered how quiet and tidy her friend’s home was; how she looked around at the ballerina figurines and the mugs stacked upside-down in rows, dripping dry next to the clean sink, and decided she would have a home like that when she grew up. Except now she knew ballerina figurines were tacky. “Do you sew at all?”
“Never picked it up,” Donna said. “Except for one summer in 4-H. I made a pillow.”
There was a general rush of excitement under the tent; a man was wheeling up a white box with a metal lid, and the words “Sno-Cone” stenciled on the side.
“Better get your girls in line for snowcones,” Donna said, as Rosemary watched every child under the tent begin to cluster around the man and the white box. She wondered if the snowcones would cost money, and if she’d have to be the mean mom if they cost too much, but as the first kids started peeling off, gripping sticky colored ice in paper cones, she realized they must be free.
So she took Jackie’s hand and walked Jackie and Natalie over to the end of the line, but they were stopped by two women—one of them short and round, in the general “apple and schoolbooks” outfit that designated her as a teacher, and the other tall and thin with a stiffly-sprayed cluster of gray curls.
“You must be Rosemary Gruber,” the older woman said. “I’m Peg Howard, the principal, and this is Deanna Cory, our kindergarten teacher.”
“Hi,” Deanna said to Rosemary, and then she squatted down to Natalie’s level. “I’m Miss Cory. Are you going to be in kindergarten with me this year?”
“Yes,” Natalie said, with one eye on the snowcone line.
“We need to do Kindergarten Readiness,” Peg Howard continued. “Most people do it at the beginning of the summer, but you hadn’t moved here yet.”
Natalie knew the women were talking about her, but she also knew that all the other kids were over there, in a line, and that they were coming back eating something that Natalie had never seen before. Something with red or yellow or purple ice in it. Natalie wanted one, and she wanted to be where the other kids were. Some of the kids she remembered from the pool, and they were waving, and she waved back, and then she felt Mommy’s hand come down on her shoulder, to hold her in place.
Then the woman with gray hair asked Natalie to come with her, and walked her away from the snowcones and the other kids. They walked up to the school and opened one of the big doors with the gray bars. Inside it was quiet, and the lights were off, and Natalie’s sandals made slapping sounds against the floor.
The woman took Natalie into a small room with white walls and said that she was the principal, and that she wanted to ask Natalie a few questions. She asked Natalie if she knew her name and her address and her telephone number, and then she asked Natalie to say the alphabet, and then she took a book from a basket next to her desk and asked if Natalie could read it.
Natalie could read but she didn’t like it. She kept her eyes wide open and tried not to blink. This book had big letters, though, and it had pictures that helped her guess. Cat, dog, ball.
Then the woman asked if Natalie could count for her. Natalie counted to ten, and then stopped.
“Do you know any numbers higher than that?” the woman asked.
Natalie knew from PBS and from Meredith telling her that numbers went all the way to infinity. She nodded.
“Can you keep counting?” the woman prodded, and so Natalie continued, working her way up past twenty and thirty and then fifty and eighty and ninety. She could feel sweat on the back of her neck. She did not like the sound of her voice in this quiet school. She wondered what she was missing, under the tent outside. All the other kids were there and she was here. She wanted to be there too. She wanted a snowcone.
When Natalie reached one hundred, she paused and looked at the gray-haired woman. The woman didn’t say anything. Natalie suddenly thought that the test must not end until she reached a number she didn’t know. She thought of all the snowcones and the kids in line. There wouldn’t be any left.
“Two hundred,” she said, watching the woman to see if she could tell. “Three hundred. Four hundred. Five hundred.”
“Thank you,” the woman said. “You can stop now.” She made a note in a book, and then walked Natalie back outside. There were still snowcones, and the man put a squirt of both orange and red in hers. And then she saw the kids she knew from the pool, and she clutched her snowcone in its wet paper and ran over to them, forgetting anything else existed except these new friends and the taste of cold sweet ice in her mouth. She ran out from under the tent into the sunlight, dripping snowcone onto her red checked dress and its strawberry buttons.
Nicole Dieker's serial novel, The Biographies of Ordinary People, tells the story of three sisters, their parents, and the past 27 years. Read and support the story at Patreon.
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