A Short Story By Frank Ross
“Patricia will be buried today…” That’s what Miss Dickens, our teacher, said. Then the bell rang and my fifth-grade class ended. I got my allowance every Friday and I always hurried home. But I didn’t that afternoon. I took the same narrow side street Patricia used. I guess in my childish way, I wanted to retrace her steps. I found myself trying to remember everything about her.
I walked along the school’s Gothic iron fence and poked at its piers, thinking how many times I had heard her calling me. She knew my name long before I knew hers. Sometimes, I’d head home across the yard. She’d call and wave. The school-bag hung over her shoulder as she marched up the street, swinging her arms like a grown-up.
On weekends, I often saw Patricia shopping on the avenue. Beside her would be the old woman with dark glasses and walking stick. I’d pretend not to see her until mother would nudge me. “Don’t you see that little girl?” I’d turn my head the other way. She’d yank my arm. “Why’re you lookin’ across the street? I’m talkin’ about the little girl at the vegetable stand.” Then I’d wave and mutter, “Hello.” Each time this happened mother gave me a strange smile. My father chuckled when mother told him, “Gets hard of hearing. Every time he sees her.”
In class her desk stood next to mine. Her hand would come up first, and Miss Dickens seldom disapproved of her answers. Patricia had a high-pitched voice, so when she read out loud you’d hear her throughout the room.
She wore her hair in two long plaits that went crazy when she ran. Many of her dresses were pleated, with some lace around the neck or at the sleeves. She never wore the same outfit twice. You could see your reflection in her patent leather shoes.
No girl in our room could out-do her at double Dutch. Not that they didn’t try. They’d turn the ropes slow and spring into rapid speed. But they never tricked her. She had the quickest feet; they seemed to float above the ground.
Since she’d never miss a single day of school, the first time she was absent, there was a big commotion. Every time the door opened, we’d look for her. Day after day, I kept looking for her. I never got used to Patricia being absent. I found out later, she never did, either. Those few times she came to school she was late, looking like she’d dressed along the way.
Some girls started teasing her. If her clothes weren’t wrinkled they’d have telltale iron marks. Her thick braids stayed loose. One day she even wore a damp dress. They made believe she’d wet herself, and she cried.
She cried, too, when two big girls called her a ragtag. Some nice lady sent them running home, promising to tell their mothers. I picked up her sweater and volunteered to carry the schoolbag. Patricia dabbed her face and left a smudge. I didn’t talk for a while because she was still calling the girls stupid brats. She waved back to the lady who stood watching us.
Patricia’s hair had curled at the sides of her face like it did when it rained. Until then, I’d never known I knew that about her. She had a pretty face and her eyes were sort of like a kitten’s.
“I sure wish my Daddy would come back home,” she mumbled.
“Gosh,” I said. “Your father don’t live home?”
Patricia wouldn’t answer.
“You can tell me. I won’t blabbermouth.”
She acted as if she didn’t believe me.
“Honest…” I begged. “Honest…”
“Cross your heart and hope to die.” Patricia frowned till I did. Then she tried to force a smile. “Gran doesn’t think he’s coming back.”
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know,” she said and sighed. “Daddy used to hug me and tell me stories.”
“Maybe he went away on business?”
“I don’t think so. Daddy always brought me back presents.”
“Why can’t he send the gifts?”
“Gran says Daddy don’t have no backbone.”
“Why’d he stop living home?”
“Gran says Mommy chased him away.”
“Who is your grandmother?”
“You’ve seen her.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“You have so,” she insisted. “On the avenue.”
“Oh, I thought that was your mother.”
Patricia tightened her lips, “Gran, going blind…”
“I’m sorry.” All of this was beyond me. I’d never heard of grown-ups running away from home. I wondered where they would go. Whether the police went looking for them, too.
The school safety stretched out his arms, the traffic light changed to red. Patricia sidestepped closer to me, bumping my shoulder, as though she were letting the bigger boy know something. But when the light turned green she moved away. I followed her across the street.
“Mommy promised me a birthday party,” she said. “But I didn’t get one.”
“Gee…” I said. “Why not?”
“Mommy went out of town.” She shook her head. “Mommy’s always going somewhere…”
“Gran says Mommy’s cattin’ around.” She turned to me, “What is cattin’ around?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “We don’t have cats.”
“Well, anyway. Mommy never spends time with me anymore.”
“My birthday is next month.”
Her mouth curved up at the corners. “How old will you be?”
“Ten,” I replied, bragging.
“You’re big for ten.”
The way Patricia looked at me made me feel bigger.
“I just turned…nine,” she continued. “Is your mother giving you a birthday party?”
“Do you want to come?”
“You don’t mean that.” Patricia reached for her schoolbag.
“I don’t mind carrying it.” I noticed when she smiled her green eyes seemed to be laughing, too.
“Do you really want me to come?” She cocked her head as if she were having trouble hearing me. “Do you?”
“Yes.” I found a sudden interest in my shoestrings.
“Will I receive an invitation?” Patricia appeared older when she arched her long neck. “Will I…?”
“I’ll put you on the list.” She made me laugh the way she’d laughed. Then she got a strange look in her eyes.
“If my Mommy isn’t home…” Her eyebrows drew together. “I may not be able to come.”
“I may not have my clothes washed and ironed.”
“Can’t your grandmother do that?”
“Gran does the best she can. The old iron gets hot and blows out the electric.”
“You mean it kicks all the lights out?”
“Gran gets shocked when she tries to change the fuse.”
“What do you do?”
“Sometimes we go for days that way.”
Patricia’s street was different from where I lived; mine, covered with black asphalt, was roomy enough so cars could pass on both sides of the trolley. I walked halfway up her block before I realized I was walking a girl home from school. I felt afraid and glad at the same time. Then I got this big idea. “That’s why your clothes are wrinkled.”
“Don’t make fun of me,” she said.
“You were so.” She snatched her schoolbag from me.
Patricia made a face at me and strutted away. I didn’t know what to do so I ran behind her. She wouldn't look my way.
“My mother got a new washing machine,” I called. “She says it takes all the work out of it.”
She stopped, looking like she might cry.
“My mother won’t mind.”
She started backing away.
“My mother likes you. She’s always talking about you.”
“She does?” Patricia paused. “Really?”
I nodded my head.
“What did she say?”
“My mother says…” Sometimes her green eyes made me want to look somewhere else, so I glanced at the sky. When I looked back she had the same kind of smile my mother had on the avenue. “My mother says – you’re darling.” I’d never been kissed by a girl, but I got the feeling that I was about to be.
“You’re a nice boy.” She patted my arm. “You’re a nice boy.”
“Then, it’s all right to ask my mother.”
“Yes,” she said, smiling.
“See you on the avenue.” I said.
She headed off but stopped and ran back and kissed me.
When I got home I told my mother about Patricia. Mother gave me the same look again. She rubbed my head and said she’d be glad to help out. The next day we didn’t see Patricia on the avenue. Monday came and she wasn’t at school. Mother sent me with a note to her house, but nobody was home. One morning the teacher said Patricia was in the hospital with pneumonia. Finally, we got word she’d died.
I hadn’t planned to walk up Patricia’s street. I don’t know why my legs couldn’t stop. Her block looked like it came out of a storybook. With cobblestones and small houses, cars could enter only single file. Slender trees lined the sidewalk, and wooden shutters hung beside the windows. I stood across from her house feeling lost. I stared at the black crepe on her door.
I heard the motors purring before I glanced up and saw long black cars creeping down the narrow street. It seemed to take forever for them to reach where I stool. I wanted to leave, but my legs wouldn’t move.
I watched the people getting out. Most wore black clothes. I searched for the old woman with the cane. Then I saw another lady. Her head was turned but somehow I knew her. The way she stood. The way she moved. They way she lifted the veil back over her straw hat. I knew those hands. My legs trembled when I saw her face.
She had Patricia’s face. I felt like some part of me had rushed ahead and grown up. I was left standing there still a kid in my knickers. Her green eyes didn’t know me. My cheeks got wet and warm.
I wiped a salty taste from my lips. The lady beckoned to me, “Come here, little boy.” I shook my head. The old woman came up with the walking stick, and said something to her. Then she called me again, “Please come here.”
I wanted to scream. “I hate you! I hate you!” I wanted to scream it all over the world. Instead, I ran. I ran all the way home that day…while a voice inside of me kept whispering, “Goodbye, Patricia. Goodbye…”
Frank Ross, a ninth grade dropout, learned to write fiction during his incarceration. Against all odds, he finally published his first short story, “Mister Milhouser," in Joan Silva’s fine journal, The Signal. Mr. Ross has been writing mostly screenplays for the last five years and is interested in connecting with publishers and production companies.
Frank Ross AM-7185
SCI – Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244