The Art of Being Important
by Copper Rose
I hate this class.
Miss Sabio says, “Close your eyes, and think back to your earliest childhood memory, back to a time when you were five or six years old. Now shape the clay into the characters that made up your family during that time.”
A knot forms in my stomach as I roll out the slab of red clay. I roll it until it looks like a snake. I add arms and legs and a long pointed tail. I add horns sprouting from the temples, and fashion a pitchfork for him to hold in his hand. Grandfather—on Mama’s side. I rip a piece from the green block of clay and roll it into a fat blob with arms and legs, no eyes, no mouth. I show it no mercy. Grandmother.
I mold Mama from the yellow block of clay. I roll her into a thin yellow string and place her on a stretcher. An emergency crew will come to take her away from my grandparent’s house, because that’s where we lived when I was little. Roger, my step-father, is blue, with a yellow hardhat and shovel. Roger is a hard-working man, working, working, all the time working, but tightfisted, keeping all his money for himself. My brother, Jerry, is a miniature version of Roger. Fidget, my little sister, is small, the youngest, and I mold her out of leftover pieces. She looks like a rainbow. We had a dog named Patches, so I roll the remaining pieces of clay together, mixing the colors until they form a brown blob. I make Patches and place her near Fidget’s feet.
I’m sitting in front of my project looking at the pieces, remembering how life was back then—hard, hungry, never having enough. How Mama had been so sick and Roger worked so hard to forget it. I was never fond of my mother’s father who threatened to take me to the back of the woodshed as long as I insisted on calling him Grandfather. No matter how sore my backside became, I could be no more endearing than that. Roger’s father may have been a drunk, but at least he was kind.
I glance up and study the other students. It seems they are struggling to mold their pieces of clay into recognizable shapes.
Miss Sabio’s voice slices open the silence. “It looks as though everyone needs extra time. You can take your projects home and bring them back tomorrow.”
I have to ride the bus home. I worry about my clay people, concerned they might melt in the heat, but when I check on them they are all okay. When I get home I don’t know where to put the clay people. We don’t have any doors in our unfinished house so it’s not like I can hide anything in a closet or some place normal, so I stash them under my bed.
After supper I sneak into my room to check on the clay people. Fidget is sitting on the bed, twisting the arms of my clay people so at first they are hugging but then she makes them punch each other in the face. I jerk them away from her and Roger’s head falls off. Fidget thinks it’s the funniest thing she’s ever seen. I squish Roger’s head back onto his body and straighten the arms of the others so everyone looks normal again. I shove them back under the bed.
When I pull the tray out in the morning I see Fidget has been busy during the night. Fidget has left my clay people in a perpetual state of punching each other. I want to move their arms, put them in a different position, but I can’t.
At school, Miss Sabio is wearing a sparkly blue sweater. “I would like you to describe your sculptures to the class and explain what insights you gained from this assignment.”
Miss Sabio is walking up and down the rows and strolls over to my desk. She looks down at my array of clay people. I’m embarrassed because somehow Roger’s arm got twisted around his head and his nose is dripping down his face.
I say a silent prayer to The Good God Of Those Who Always Have To Go First but the god shows no mercy today as I hear Miss Sabio say, “Samantha, would you like to tell us about your family?”
My chest tightens. Getting up in front of the class is last on my list of favorite things to do. My hands are wet, and I stumble when I walk to the front of the room with my tray of people. I hold up each piece while I describe them to my classmates. I tell the story of how my grandparents had been so mean and how Mama had been so sick. I tell them how much I loved Patches, and it is only then a few tears well up in the corners of my eyes. I can feel the warmth of Miss Sabio’s hand on my shoulder. She smells like lilacs. “Are you through?” she asks.
My head wobbles up and down.
“Are you sure you’re through?” she asks again.
I’m getting the idea I have missed something important. But how could that be? It’s my story. Embarrassment starts a slow crawl up my leg, lodges in my gut, and toys for a second with my brain. I feel a rush of blood that brightens my cheeks as I stand confused, unable to perceive what I have overlooked.
Miss Sabio turns to the class. “Can anyone tell me what is missing from this family?”
Every hand in the room shoots up.
Miss Sabio points to a student named Cindy, who stares at her feet. Cindy doesn’t look up as she says, in a voice scarcely above a whisper, “You forgot yourself.”
I stare at the tray of clay people and everyone who is a part of my family is there—except me.
The gate on my heart breaks open, the whips, the chains, the times behind the woodshed, it all spills from my lips and spreads across the floor like oil, slippery and dark, hard to hang onto. The walls are down now and there is nowhere to hide. Not behind a door that isn’t there. Or under a bed.
I reach down and unfold Roger’s clay arm from around his head.
Miss Sabio touches my arm and has a look on her face. It takes me a minute to understand what it means.
She sees me.
It is then—I know—someone who cares will teach me. Someone will show me how to get where I need to go. There are people who know how to reach the stars.
“Thank you, Miss Sabio. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”
* * * * *
Copper Rose perforates the edges of the page while writing unusual stories from the heart of Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and online journals. She also understands there really is something about pie. You can connect with her at https://julieceger.wordpress.com/copper-rose-author/ and Author Copper Rose.