March 13, 1952

Hell found her. Yes. It had surely found her. It was Doreen’s eighteenth birthday, but instead of celebrating, she stood, alone, in a dim-lit pantry, staring at a line on the wall. An ordinary line it could’ve been, should’ve been, only now it bore the mark of desperation, sadness, and a bitter battle waging in the pit of her stomach. Red crayon, no more than hen scratching, “five-foot-two inches, thirteen years old,” etched a fire into her heart, the heat now spreading to her lungs.

Her graduation awaited. In one week, she’d march onto a stage, receive her diploma from Back Creek High, hear the cheers from family and friends, see the smiles and laughter seeded by accomplishment and attend the post-party at Jimmy McFadden’s house, a milestone made of bricks and lead now filling her blood. How could she bear it when the emptiness threatened to melt her bones, force her knees to the floor?

Voices wafted through the house, some familiar, some unknown, but there wasn’t a single person she could look in the eye. They wore black suits and skirts, and their shiny shoes tiptoed here and there as though afraid to wake someone. From what, she didn’t know. Handkerchiefs and tissues were wadded in pockets and folded in hands.

A potted indoor flower garden overran tables, counters, and  floors. The one she hated most displayed a dozen star-like flowers. A tag read: “Celebration of Life Spray.” Their stamens irked her. They way they seemed to point at her like some God awful painting where the eyes followed her around the room, something Mrs. Langlois, her art teacher, called a ubiquitous gaze. Her teacher explained, “No matter what angle you look at the painting from, Dory, the painting itself doesn’t change.” Knowing this had alleviated her fears but now the flowers were doing it too. She searched the room for Mrs. Langlois, but she wasn’t there.

Guests had prepared platters of food in the kitchen and delivered them to the dining room along a well-worn path in the carpet. It was the same carpet where she’d danced with her brother to the TV show Hee-Haw. Eight o’clock every Sunday, he’d place a hay stalk between his teeth and they’d do-si-do in circles. He’d ask another math question like, “What’s sixty times ten, ballerina?” Before she could respond he’d poke her in the sides and tickle her until she fell to the floor laughing. “How can someone as smart as you not know how to walk a straight line?” he’d shake his head.

But she did. It was called math. She always loved math. But dancing. Now that was beyond any calculation she could muster while standing here, gazing into the dark pantry innards. Here the truth couldn’t be hidden or wished away. Here the difference between her and her brother would always be a matter of eight inches and red crayon.

Tommy would never again record his height behind the door, among the canned goods and pickling jars and bins of potatoes, their sprouting eyes overseeing the boy, his ink-black hair and green eyes. And upside down rows of herbs tied with string, pungent sage, basil, mint, and lemon balm blending with vats of perfume and cologne the forty house guests were sure to have bathed in.

Someone snorted, a grandiose goose honk, bringing Doreen back to the present.

She had enough of these people, taking up space in her house, acting as if they knew her brother, as if these blatant falsities, these distractions and pretenses would make the truth any easier to bear. Shouting and stomping, now that might be something she could do, something that would make sense.

Two-one-two Cherry Lane was on the south side of town, between the post office on First Street and Plucky’s Funeral Home to the north, where their procession of vehicles had a short while ago ferried her brother’s body to its final resting place, among the elm and oak and chokecherry, their whispering, waving leaves lending death a deafening backdrop. Sixty cars. She’d counted them all in no more than a glance, really. Numbers were heaven to her, but hell couldn’t be avoided here.

A tear slid down her cheek. She caught it with her finger and flung it to the floor.

Perhaps she was better off without her brother. He’d stolen her toys, ripped arms and legs from dolls, constantly interrupted phone conversations with friends, and garnered all the attention when his disease took over their lives. Her last birthday Tommy had snatched presents from her hands, ripped away festive wrappings, blown out candles with wry laughter, and eaten most of the cake; these thoughts now stung worse than sitting on a yellow jacket nest.

For the funeral, they’d combed Tommy’s hair to the left, she suspected to cover his scar, the one that ran across his hairline and dipped to his eyebrow, the one carved there by his three-year battle with a tumor that ate his brain, taking away first his sight, then his memories, and finally nailing him to the bed. The one with wheels and outfitted with tubes and wires and careful notes indicating when he’d eaten, vomited, what his poop looked like, loose and green or hard and black.

Tommy would’ve hated all this fuss being made over him. He was more interested in how things worked. The toaster, garage door opener, combination locks, radios and televisions and the hay baler on their ten-acre farm, all gutted and put back together so many times they looked like wasted old men and women, the same gray-haired rows of attendees she’d stared at this morning.

The night before his seizures started, two months earlier, he’d taken apart her hair dryer; it still sat on the bathroom floor, guts spreading on the linoleum, springs and wires and unidentifiable things left homeless. Leaving it there felt right somehow.

Tommy always parted his hair on the right using Daddy’s black No. 10 Goody comb. She’d watch him primping in the mirror and wonder why he spent so much time fussing with his skin, his hair, the full head of dark curls slowly turning to fine peach fuzz before seeding again.

She’d been furious with her parents for withholding the seriousness of her brother’s illness. If she’d known earlier she could’ve... would’ve... Well, she didn’t know what exactly, but it was selfish them. He was her brother for crying out loud.

So many memories surging in her mind today and yet that memory of her brother standing before the mirror, day in day out, stood out like no other as she lurked behind the pantry door, avoiding guests. Even more than the five o’clock morning drives to Stanton General Hospital, twenty miles away in the shameless city of Eagleton Pennsylvania, between the rolling hills of Brighton to the east and Lake Erie to the west, where her brother’s life played out its final act, where hell found her, supplicating, looking for a reason not to.

She lifted a black marker. Why not? Tommy wasn’t here to see.

The thought of having to look at this line, every day, beyond graduation, grated her nerves. She’d decided to remain with her wearied parents, and postpone college for a year, a nearly unbearable diversion, but a necessary one. She’d finally managed to bring her grades above C pluses by the end of junior year. Math was her only saving grace. She was born knowing the multiplication table, geometric shapes heralded her dreams, and word problems read like elementary school books. A mathematical genius Mrs. Ellison, her favorite teacher, had insisted since fourth grade.

“Doreen!” Her grandmother’s voice barreled from the family room.

The marker jumped from Doreen’s hands, skittered across the flour-dusted floor and disappeared under a shelf.

“Doreen Ann Morrow, what in God’s name are you doing in here?” Grandma Lottie stood in the doorway, her hulking sides jammed against the frame.

“Nothing, I was just…” She reached for a can of Le Seur peas with pearl onions, which from experience she knew the ratio of peas-to-onions was forty-to-one. Only today they felt more like odds stacked against her. “I’m heating vegetables for guests,” she said, tucking a curl behind her ear and pushing past the wall of flesh.

Grandma didn’t understand numbers, nor did anyone in her family. She’d learned a long time ago, in middle school, that labels ruled: something was either tall or short, fat or thin, pretty or ugly, smart or dumb. She once thought these things were dependent upon who was doing the assessing. But her brother left no in-between, and her rational mind hated that.

In math, there was no such thing as a guess or ridiculous inferences. Pluses and minuses and equal signs, applications and formulas fed her mind like the bubbling spring at the back of their farmland. The forty well-tended acres where she’d spent endless hours going over college textbooks, all memorized now, putting off chores—adjusting field sprinklers, feeding livestock, mucking stalls. Yes. She had to believe, on this, the worst day of her life, that math would always be there even when all else paled in comparison, failed to return the favor.

She dumped peas and onions into a pan as Pastor Brown’s farewell poem replayed in her head:

I must go down to the seas again

To the lonely sea and the sky…

March 13, 1982

Professor Morrow examined the math problem she’d written on the board. “I want to see all of your work,” she reminded her students, underlining her request in red chalk. It was late spring and they were readying for final exams, students half-asleep or comatose likely from the parties they’d attended over the weekend.

College students were like children. Two of those Doreen now had at home, one in fifth grade, the other graduating high school, a girl and a boy, Paulina and Tommy. Junior, she called him, after her brother. Yes. Students needed frequent reminders, rules, regulations, a predictable structure. She’d learned this during her first year as professor of mathematics at King’s College. That’s what she told herself. But the place in her mind that she kept on lockdown knew better.

Now in her tenth year of teaching, she’d finally earned enough tenure to assure a sabbatical for the summer months. She’d secured a position with NASA’s engineering arm where she’d be learning about advanced computer algorithms and setting up suitable coordinate systems for spacecraft and satellites. The letter had arrived this morning, now stowed in her briefcase, granted Fields Medal status.

She imagined working on a space station, using mathematical applications she’d perfected for a mission. She’d long since determined there was nothing more to learn in the mathematical arts, but astronomy combined with math was an area she’d yet to explore. Too many years as a math student and now a teacher had immunized her against other possibilities: mathematical applications used to solve real-life problems might be rather different from methods emphasized in school courses.

Yes. The correct mathematical construct could save a life. If only.

I must go down to the seas again

To the lonely sea and the sky…

March 13, 2012

“Gamma, Gamma!” little Izzy cried. “Look, I dropped the shell into the batter!”

Doreen plucked at her chef cap, and tucked white hair beneath its sheltering cover. “Not to worry, sweetheart. It’s nothing Grandma can’t fix. Why don’t you wash your hands and prepare baking pans.” She gestured to the kitchen table stocked with pans, butter, and flour. “Go on now,” she urged, patting Izzy’s bottom.

Doreen broke eggs into custard dishes, tickled the orange, fleshy orbs with a fork and folded the result into a mixing bowl while her granddaughter prepared eight-inch pans, flinging flour every which way.

She checked the recipe again, scanning an index finger down the dog-eared page. Baking isn’t for sissies. She often repeated the mantra to her grandchildren, intent on skipping lines of instruction and failing to use a level on measuring cups of flour and sugar, spoons of baking soda and salt. Baking was like ballet, a dance where steps couldn’t be skipped; a clumsy ballerina was an unemployed dancer. She continued beating the eggs. Faster. Faster.

“Around again, pardner,” Tommy begged, tugging on her arm as they twirled in the living room. That damn carpet. Before her parents replaced it, the spot where she once danced with her brother was threadbare, showing the wood floor between thin strips of avocado green.

“Careful now, Iz, watch you don’t fall off that step stool!” Tutus and lazy artists didn’t mix, even for those whose medium was a well-stocked kitchen.

Her recipe book lines were set in precise rows with essential beginnings and endings, an inked agreement between cups, spoons, and ounces; a consensus of eyes and hands and brains, no room for deviation or interpretation, just right, wrong.

Serious reading was another matter, best left for church on Sundays, sitting in creaky pews, thumbing through page after page of paper so thin it felt like water in her fingers. Cologne, cigar smoke, eyes fixed on a black suit, waving arms, listening to an assured monotone and recited hymnals where punishment for stubbornness and wayward thinking consisted of forty years wandering the desert, choking on dust, contemplating death, God’s almighty mind all-knowing, his hands unassailable as he snatched away Tommy.

Conviction was for the sure-hearted, the light of foot, God’s army, his soldiers. The Book of Numbers. Faithfulness. Trust and holiness. She’d lost that battle a long time ago in a pantry marked with red ink. Yes. Hell surely found me there.

Doreen had always followed mathematical rules, the coordinating conjunctions serving as a means to a mathematical end. Ideas were for fools. Heady fools filled with their own self-importance. Ideas got you into trouble. Acting on this or that whim felled nations, beat women senseless, left children abandoned with no one to stroke newborn crowns or nurse at the breast. Two of those. And hands, too, and eyes. And a four-wheeled bed, tucked away in the attic, bearing the ghost of a long-dead brother. Ceaseless pain and feverish screams filled the late nights and early mornings of her childhood and flooded back to her now.

A lonely tear fell into her mixing bowl. By damned she was going to leave it there, just this once. For Tommy she whispered to the kitchen.

With numbers there was no in-between. No wondering, wandering minds, no funeral pomp according to circumstance, just numbers and symbols, an odd sort of ubiquitous gaze.

“Come, Izzy, see how Grandma measures flour for your brother’s birthday cake.”

“I wanna see!” little Izzy cried.

Farming, too, was all about math. A fortnight of acres produced hay, lifeblood measured and calculated: a square bale, one-hundred pounds, sixteen inches high, twenty-two inches wide and forty-four inches long fed one horse twice a day for a week.

She had farmers hands, passed down by her daddy and his daddy before that. Simple folk. They tilled land, grew fruits and vegetables, raised animal servants, foot soldiers without a care in the world other than when their next meal would arrive. Five-fifteen on the dot for chickens, goats, and cows. Pigs, ten of those, their doughy, pink sides bursting at the seams, six sows with teats trailing the ground, earning six blue ribbons at the county fair, year after year, fed on scraps, twice daily.

Farmland surrounded by twenty rolling clouds under one blue sky; ten thousand raindrops falling on crops and fields, fertilizing one thousand head lettuce, five-hundred beets and carrots with their twiggy hats, rows of corn, one hundred by one hundred square.

Four farm dogs, one three-legged; half-dozen barn cats matched against two hundred mice give or take a dozen on any particular day; counting fireflies by the spark, in the fields or in a jar.

Deciding when, where, who: that’s how problems started, divvying according to who deserved what, shutting out, shutting down, leaving behind and falling away. Tommy was only thirteen when someone or something decided that was enough.

While dancing in the living room, she’d fallen once, hitting her head on the side table. Hard. Tommy stopped twirling. “Dory!” He rushed to her side, held her head in his hands, and stroked her face. A month later it was she holding his hand, in the hospital after the diagnosis, not realizing it would be less than a year before he’d never dance with her again.

Doreen stopped force-stroking the eggs and opened and closed her aching hands. Damned arthritis.

“Time to wash our hands now, Iz.”

“Me first, me first,” insisted Izzy.

And everyday math: four tires delivered her to the grocery where food and drink were bottled, bought and sold in gallons, ounces, pounds, ferried in crates, four-sided boxes, pallets with ten wooden slats, cases of water, soda, beer, twelve’s & twenty-fours, stored in an old farmhouse pantry once overrun with an impromptu height chart, four-feet-two inches and no more, now a swath of inky black which, at first glance, might have been mistaken for a hole in the wall. Did hell find me here? Or, did I find it?

Doreen shuffled closer to the pantry, her slippers not exactly what a ballerina would wear, but she felt more at home in these, steadier on her feet.

“Come now, Iz, let’s mark your height on the wall.”

“Why?” Izzy asked, a perplexed crinkle forming between her eyes, curly black hair overrunning her forehead. She looked so much like Tommy.

“So we can see how fast you grow. Every month we’ll check your height and make a new mark. Okay?”

A smile graced Izzy’s face.

Yes. Math was in her blood too. But there was still time to change that.

And all I ask is a tall ship

And a star to steer her by

(Sea Fever excerpt from John Masefield, Poet Laureate 1878 - 1967)

October 18, 2019 17:05

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Gayatri Varma
16:41 Oct 24, 2019

WOW. This is brilliant. I loved it.


Katy Lyst
16:52 Oct 25, 2019

Thank you, thank you! I'm new here. I'd been ruminating about this story for years, and then I found the right prompt from Reedsy to clarify the plot and the story just leaped onto the page. Odd how that worked. My answer to the ancient paradox of, "which comes first, the chicken or the egg?" was furthered along just a smidge. Thank you, Reedsy! And thank you Gayatri V for taking the time to read and comment on my story. It means more than you know. With humble gratitude. KD


Gayatri Varma
08:50 Nov 14, 2019

Aww! It was a pleasure reading your story. Good luck with your writing.


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