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Learning in Grayscale

By R. Dana Barlow

Draped in his chair, Andy hunched forward, bony elbows firmly planted on the small desk in front of him, fidgeting fingers of both hands interlocked in a soft clench. His heart raced. He harbored a goal for today.

Andy raised his head, peering at the markings that lined the soffit atop the cabinets that ringed the room along the drop ceiling tiles. They were letters he needed to learn to write. Did he have it in him?

His eyes traced the vivacious curves of the capital and lower-case “s” companions on display as one of his favorites. All curvy like a waterslide into a pool. He wanted to master them first. He turned to the left and spotted the twin-angled arches of the sturdy capital “M” and its rounded smaller sidekick. He continued moving left to the stoic face of the capital “H,” and then the motion-driven letter “E.”

While mid-thought, something promptly distracted him. The room smelled … funny. He wrinkled his nose, glancing furtively around for the source of the offensive aroma. He briefly but vaguely recalled the sponge his mother had used for the kitchen sink and the mop for the floor – oh, the odor that filled the area.

Just then Andy heard a cheerful, pleasant-sounding voice behind him.

“Hi Andy! It’s me, Eve, again!” she chimed. “I am sooo looking forward to our meeting today, aren’t you?”

Andy swiveled in his chair as Eve, clad in a light blue frock, sauntered into the room.

“We are going to practice a few more letters this morning,” Eve said with a lilt in her voice. “You did so well with the ‘I’ and ‘T’ yesterday. How about we start with the letters in your name? Does that sound like fun?”

Andy yearned to tell Eve about the “S” and the “M” and the “H” and the “E,” but resigned himself to following her instruction. After all, she was the teacher. She knew best.

Andy’s stubby fingers gripped the Phoenix No. 2 pencil as if it were his sole prized possession eyed by nearby thieves. Eve chuckled, her genuine smile forming a wee dimple in her right cheek that pinched her eye tightly. Andy surmised she must smile a lot because of the laugh lines snaking along her skin from the corner of her eyes. He counted at least three or four each, maybe five if he squinted hard enough and concentrated his gaze.

“It’s all right,” she reassured him. “You don’t need to hold the pencil so tightly. You might break it!” Eve teased approvingly. “Don’t worry, we have more. Just loosen your hand a little. There. That’s it. Now let’s start with the first line in the letter ‘A.’”

Andy liked Eve. She was such a good teacher and seemed like a gentle soul. He hoped someday he would be able to write all those letters he spied near the ceiling. There seemed to be a lot of them, but maybe if he practiced every day, first with Eve and then all by himself, he would be able to print his name and write words just like his mom did when she made the grocery list she took to market.

Furrowing his brow, Andy slowly dragged the pencil tip on a diagonal from the blue guideline at the top through the dashed mid-line downward left to the blue guideline at the bottom. He recognized that the letter “A” formed an angle so he moved next to draw another diagonal line, this time from the point at the top through the dashed mid-line downward, right to the blue guideline at the bottom. He looked up at the letter “A” illustrated on the soffit above. He wasn’t quite done yet. He returned his gaze to the acute angle he drew on the page and then checked the illustration a second time. All he needed to finish was draw the crossbar connecting the two diagonals at the dashed mid-line.

Mentally visualizing his next move, Andy then pressed down on the paper and connected the diagonals in a thick black line, printing his first block letter of the day. He forced the line so hard that his sweaty fingers slipped down the barrel of the pencil.

“Good job, Andy!” Eve reassured him. “Now relax and try the next letter.”

A buzzing noise emanated from the pocket of Eve’s blue smock. Andy watched as she reached in, pulled out her smart phone, glanced at the screen and then returned it to its place.

As Andy continued scribbling the arc of the lower-case letter “n” Eve heard a knock at the door at the back of the room. Eve promptly excused herself with a reassuring tap on Andy’s left shoulder.

“Andy, I have to step outside for a moment,” she said. “Keep working on your letters. You’re doing GREAT!”

As Andy looked up at Eve he noticed beams of light simply radiated from her face. She definitely was his favorite teacher.

Eve quietly slipped out of the room and spoke to the man outside who gripped the stethoscope around his neck.

“How is he doing?” the man asked.

“Mr. Hinkley’s making tremendous progress, Doctor,” Eve replied. “But he continues to struggle. I don’t know how much he can recall because he’s still not talking yet. By the way he looks at me though, I think I’m getting through to him.”

The doctor ground his jaw. “He was a beloved and respected high school English teacher before he suffered his massive stroke, Eve,” he said. “His wife is beside herself and just wants to feel some hope.”

Pensively, Eve peered downward and pursed her lips. “When I started working with him several weeks ago everything was black and white to him, but now he seems to be settling into shades of gray,” she reflected. “Once he writes his name on his own for the first time again, I think we’ll see some color. We’re almost there.”

Salt and Pepper

By Geri Johnson

Salt and Pepper, you can find them together on your kitchen table, on restaurants tables, picnic blankets and next to each other in the grocery aisle.

One day, Salt, who was not provoked said to Pepper, “You’re kind of a bad spice, you make people sneeze.”

“Well, you raise peoples blood pressure,” Pepper fired back. 

“And you give people heartburn,” yelled Salt.

“And you’re a sneaky spice, you hide in processed foods,” Pepper yelled back.

Salt shouted over to the kitchen pantry, “Hey, White Sugar, come over here and be on my side.” Without even wondering why, White Sugar obeyed and stood next to Salt.

So Pepper shouted over to the kitchen pantry, “Hey, Brown Sugar, come over here and be on my side.” Without even wondering why, Brown Sugar obeyed and stood next to Pepper.

Salt was getting angrier now and shouted to the kitchen pantry again, “Hey, White Flour, come here and stand next to me and White Sugar and be on our side.” Without questioning why, White Flour obeyed and stood next to White Sugar and Salt.

Now Pepper was getting angrier and shouted to the kitchen pantry again, “Hey, Wheat Flour,  come here and stand next to me and Brown Sugar and be on our side.” Without questioning why, Wheat Flour obeyed and stood next to Brown Sugar and Pepper.

Salt wanted its army to grow and shouted once again to the kitchen pantry, “Hey, Vanilla Extract, come here and stand next to me, White Sugar and White Flour and be on our side.”  Without hesitation, Vanilla Extract teamed up with Salt, White Sugar and White Flour.

Now Pepper wanted its army to grow and shouted once again to the kitchen pantry, “Hey, Coco Powder, come here and stand next to me, Brown Sugar  and Wheat Flour and be on our side.” Without hesitation, Coco Powder teamed up with Pepper, Brown Sugar and Wheat Flour.

Next, Salt marched over to the refrigerator and grabbed two white eggs to join its troop. Then Pepper marched over to the refrigerator  and grabbed two brown eggs to join its troop.

Later that day Mom came into the kitchen and saw all the baking goods on the table, since she didn’t know how they got there she just blamed it on her husband who never puts anything back anyway. Seeing all the baking goods gave her an idea…

So Mom went to the kitchen pantry and took out a bag of chocolate chips and a bag of white morsel chips while Salt and Pepper hid behind the napkin holder. Mom mixed all the ingredients in a bowl as Salt and Pepper carefully peeked around the napkin holder to watch. Mom spread it on an aluminum pan and baked it in a 350° oven for 11 minutes and it turned out to be a warm and delicious gigantic cookie!

Salt and Pepper finally came to a realization and declared, “Everyone matters, everyone is important, when we all contribute we can make sweet things happen!”

Peppermint Fudge

By Kei Smith

Minnie found out her grandmother was dying while waiting in line at Oberweis. She was intently squinting at the “Flavor of the Day”, trying to make out the nearly imperceptible lettering below it signifying the price. Of course they make the price microscopic; how else would they bait customers into choosing a flavor that’s slightly overpriced, but not so expensive that customers didn’t surrender to the seemingly more luxurious taste of peppermint fudge?

But old habits die hard; she wasn’t about to let her inability to make out an 8 versus a 3 interfere with choosing the cheapest flavor. It didn’t matter that Mama made more money now-the shame of eating something just 50 cents more expensive would ruin the taste.

As Minnie anxiously tried to distance herself from the elderly couple “wearing” their masks, her mother left the bathroom. Brandishing her phone, fury rolled off her shoulders as she stalked towards her daughter. Minnie had yet to turn around, but felt rather than saw the swift movement of feet charging towards her. She flinched mid-turn, seeing a familiar blur of dark purple hurtling towards her in the corner of her vision. Her mother abruptly halted, and simply said in a chillingly quiet voice,

“Let’s go.”

She knew not to argue. They weren’t getting ice cream tonight.

It turns out her grandmother had suffered a massive stroke, her mother explained as they drove out of the Oberweis parking lot. And it’s bad, she added, tears streaking down her cheeks.

It was disorienting to see her mother cry; she had seen her mother cry maybe once in her life, but it was a hazy memory. It made her question whether it had even happened, but this, this was sharp and painful, and very clearly real. Uncomfortable, Minnie opted to stare at the darkening sky instead.

Minnie knew her mother forced herself to go to Grandma’s house for her sake. She knew that behind closed doors, Granny was vicious towards her mother. But how was a child supposed to stop the visits? As Minnie grew older, glimpses of her grandmother’s berating nature began to appear like a mirage flickering in the sun. She would nonchalantly make biting comments, occasionally remarking that Minnie’s face had gotten fat, or that her acne was especially bad today. These sudden forays against her self-esteem confused her. Minnie wondered if these were signs that her grandmother was going senile; maybe she was mistaking her granddaughter for her own daughter? Now she wonders if she could’ve prevented her decline.

“....So when are we going to see her, Mama?” Minnie asked softly. Her mother stiffened, and swiftly wiped the tears off her face. “We’re not going to,” she said in a clipped voice as she blew through a red light. Minnie’s eyes widened, her mouth opening to protest. “We’re not. Going to.” her mother repeated venomously, giving Minnie the side eye. Her daughter’s incredulity turned to ire.

“Why?”

Silence.

“Why?” she pressed harshly, panic bubbling in her chest. In another world, she would be shrieking furiously, trying to get her mother’s attention. But this is not the family Minnie was born into. There were two unspoken rules she knew very well: 1. Emotions are a sign of weakness. 2. Her mother’s word is final. Questioning her was against “the rules”; against the rules in another country that her mother had unfortunately brought to this one, and so she lived with those consequences. A mother’s influence is stronger than any cultural or societal one.

What confused her was why Mama was so angry. Maybe she felt left out when her daughter was laughing with the woman she hated most. Was it an act of betrayal to laugh with her mother’s greatest source of pain? She couldn’t help that her grandmother was her greatest source of joy.

No longer willing to entertain the silence, something within her broke; Minnie hurled herself towards her mother, her seat belt straining as she tried to get up in her face.

“Why don’t you look at me?!” Minnie screamed.

Her mother said nothing.

In the silence, a forbidden truth arises. She doesn’t suppress it.

“I wish you were the one dying,” she hissed.

Nothing.

In retaliation, she hurls her fists down onto the dashboard, ready to-

BOOM.

Minnie’s stomach somersaults as she’s thrown back against the passenger seat. Stunned, Minnie and her mother freeze in confusion. A moment passes, and the soft ringing of the crickets fill the resounding silence.

“The….the tire just went out,” her mother said simply as she turned to Minnie in awe. Minnie blinked at her, a slow smile spreading across her face. And just like that, she began to laugh. Howling, wheezing laughter mixed with broken sobs of pain. As she bent over from laughter at the absolute absurdity of the situation, she soon heard her mother join. They tried to pull themselves together, but as soon as they made eye contact, they lost it again, coughing and wheezing and crying and laughing all over again. Her grandmother was dying, their car’s right tire had just blown out, there was no way to get home, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing she could do to change it.

The funeral was 5 days later. That night, after Minnie and her mother got home, they found a voicemail from an unknown number. Minnie knew with one glance what it meant, but that didn’t stop her hands from shaking as she handed the phone to her mother.

Years later, Minnie and her mother would simply laugh at how the absolute worst circumstances had all managed to occur in one moment. Conversations about that day were always brief and never quite touched the hurt beneath it all, but Minnie was okay with this. She soon learned to forget, as time makes one do, except for those occasional excursions where she would treat herself to the taste of peppermint fudge ice cream, alone in Oberweis without that familiar flash of purple from her mother.