“Claudia’s boyfriend is here.”
Ted hears Joey call out his arrival as soon as he reaches the top step, and before he has a chance to ring the doorbell. Two other brothers take up the call. “Claudia, your boyfriend’s here.”
Ted stands at the door hands in pockets and waits. Inside, the stairs thump like drums as one of the brothers races up calling for his sister even as she is already charging down from her room on the third floor. Ted is not sure what a boyfriend is but knows he is not one. He has been moved up to the sixth grade in the middle of the year and Claudia is his only friend.
The door opens and Mr. Stevens fills the frame. “Oh, hi there, Teddy. Does Claudia know you’re here?” Mr. Stevens is fond of smoking a pipe and even when he is not doing so a corner of his mouth is parted slightly like one is there.
“I got it, Daddy. I’m here.” She has a strong but quiet voice. At first Ted had trouble understanding her in class, but now he hears every word.
Joey has run off, but Richie and Irving linger in the background. “What are you and your boyfriend going to do, Claudia?” Irving says, his long arms draped across the banister.
Claudia stands with her back to her brothers. Her father has drifted over to the hall table and is flipping through the mail. She turns her head part ways and addresses a patch of floor between her and Irving. “He’s not my boyfriend.”
Richie chips in. “He’s your friend. And he’s a boy, right?”
She turns and faces Richie, who is younger and smaller. “Boy is a category. You losers are all boys. Ted is an individual with a brain in his head whose name happens to be Ted which happens to be a boy’s name.”
“‘… an individual with a brain in his head,’“ Irving echoes in as high a voice as he can manage.
“Boys,” Mr. Stevens says without looking up. “Boys,” he repeats, looking right at them, and finally they leave. “You don’t always have to be fighting with your brothers, Claudia. You know they’re just teasing and having fun. They’re the only brothers you’ll ever have.”
“Praise the Lord for that,” she says quietly, putting her hand on Ted’s shoulder and nudging him toward the kitchen.
“Yes, sir.” Claudia stops just before the doorway and gestures to Ted with her eyes to go ahead into the kitchen.
“First of all, if you’re going to say something, say it. Don’t mutter.”
“I wasn’t muttering.”
“You were muttering so I wouldn’t hear you. And please look at me when we’re discussing something.”
She turns and faces her father. “If I didn’t want you to hear I would have said it in my head.” Then Claudia smiles the way she does when a bit of wordplay occurs to her. The father is an English professor, and loses all will to be strict with her now. “Besides,” she says, “does it really matter if I mutter?”
“Yes, it matters.”
He is not convincing and they both know it. He worries about his daughter, surrounded by boys. His wife is a good mother, but at a peaceful remove since being born again. Everything works out for the best, she says. His own sister, Emma, is so eccentric that growing up with her offered little instruction in raising a daughter.
He is alone with the kids while his wife is off at a church bake sale. He is preparing Monday’s lecture and has trouble picking up the thread of his thoughts after being interrupted. At night Claudia comes into his study while the boys watch TV and this he welcomes. Often they speak very little. She will roam about the room, pulling down books and being careful about putting them back in the right place. Sometimes she will help herself to a legal pad and one of his nice pens and sit across from him at the big maple desk.
“And don’t talk that way about the Lord when your mother’s around.”
“Now give me a kiss and get your friend a piece of that pound cake your mother left before your brothers find it.”
After their snack Claudia and Ted head outside and down the dusty palm-lined street toward the park. This is how it is when he comes to visit. On the move, away from the house. The other place they spend time together is at school. She has permission to go to the library during recess instead of going outside and sometimes she asks him to come along.
She walks faster than any kid he knows, her thin brown legs tireless like motors. It is as though she is making up for exercise lost during recess at the library. She marches along, silent mostly, looking down. When they arrive at a place to sit and talk she will look at him with gray eyes that seem to reach out and grab him. But as they walk she looks at the pebbly ground rushing between them whenever she has something to say.
On this day they walk along the stream running through the park and follow it out of the park and under the bridge where the water trickles down to nothing and the dry bed cuts through the desert plain and into the mountains. The rule with her mother is to stay in the park and never go past the bridge, but she has an understanding with her father that it is OK to follow the dry bed a little ways as long as she doesn’t go too far. When she is older she will be able to hike into the mountains, perhaps by herself.
“Maybe when we get back my Dad will be done with his lecture and we can go into his study.” They have stopped and are leaning against the shaded side of the dry bed, the sun behind them. “He’s got so many books. They say ‘ex Libris’ and then his name in the front. That’s Latin for ‘from the Library of’ somebody. That’s why it’s ‘library’ and not ‘libary.’ I hate it when kids say it like that.”
“Not everyone’s as smart as you. Not everyone reads so much.”
“You’re as smart. You skipped a grade.”
“Maybe you could have skipped a grade, too.”
He doesn’t know but Ted is onto something. Claudia feels herself invisible much of the time and goes out of her way to remain so. She remembers the attention that came when her third-grade report card was all A+. Now she makes sure that her grades hold steady at A-, and it is a challenge of sorts to calibrate it just right. She brings all her tests and homework into her father’s study at night, and sometimes he will linger over an incorrect answer he is sure she must know and ask her about it. I must have been thinking of something else, she will say.
“There’s stuff that you can’t learn in books, Claudia,” Ted says.
“Things in nature.” He thinks a moment. “Have you ever noticed the way a hawk lands?”
“I can’t say that I have.” Her father will sometimes say this in response to a question from her mother.
Ted pauses before speaking. He wants to get this right. “It glides in and hardly flaps its wings. Then it goes down and up again, slow, and then it lands. Like this,” he says and swoops down and up with his hand bent back, leading with the heel, which he imagines to be the hawk’s chest.
They sit quietly and look for a hawk to appear so she can see. A hummingbird whirs by but the high blue sky is clear and wide and empty.
“Which countries do they talk Latin in?” Ted asks later, after they have walked some more and then stopped again.
“It’s what they call a dead language. It’s only in books. They used to teach it in high school, but now you have to wait until college. Nobody speaks it anymore but it helps you figure out where words in our language come from. Like library.”
Claudia has almost no one to talk to and when she gets on a roll like this it tumbles out. “It’s better in high school and in college. In our grade English teachers just teach grammar, but later they teach books and stories. You can study stories like people study paintings.”
Ted is unclear what paintings and stories have to do with one another.
“Like in art class, how Mrs. Rollins was teaching us that when you make two lines come close together you can make it look like something is disappearing at the back of the picture. You can do that with words.”
They have turned around and are on their way back when Ted shouts and points. “Look.” A hawk floats high above them, drifting side to side, lazy like the hot desert air. “Maybe it’s aiming for that tree over there, before the mountains start.” They stand shoulder to shoulder and look, and the hawk lands just as he said it would, a slow-motion swoon down and then up before it comes to rest lightly on a scraggly branch of the far-off tree. Claudia puts both hands on Ted’s shoulder and squeezes, delighted.
“You’re right, you’re right.”
“That’s something you can’t learn from a book.”
“It has to be in a book, somewhere.” She says it matter-of-factly, her attention still on the hawk. “Everything is.”
Ted considers this. He feels comfortable standing up to Claudia. “But you might not look it up in a book unless you saw it in real life first.”
She nods and continues to stare into the distance, waiting for the hawk to fly off.
“And you would have noticed on your own if you didn’t look down all the time when you walk.”
“I don’t look down.” She turns to Ted. “Do I?”
“You do.” He is happy to be teaching her things. “Go ahead and see.”
Claudia closes her eyes and takes a few steps forward. She is not out to prove him wrong or right. She has never thought about it and wants to see how it is that she walks. “Son of a gun,” she says, echoing another of her father’s expressions, and with exaggerated slowness takes a few more steps, keeping her head up. She hums to herself. She has found a new thing. When she opens her eyes and turns around to look the hawk has disappeared.
They stop one more time on the way back, under the cool of the bridge.
“It’s hot. This town is boring,” Claudia says. “Victorville, a town named after some guy, some guy named Victor. I’m moving to Los Angeles when I grow up. In Spanish it means ‘the angels’ and they pronounce the ‘g’ like an ‘h’ so it sounds like this.” And she says the name, the foreign sound sweet on her tongue. “Go ahead, you try.”
“I don’t speak Spanish.”
He says it with great solemnity, and she finds this funny, and laughs. “Neither do I,” she says, and laughs harder. She starts to shake and then out comes this sound, a girly happy sound, sweet and musical like water over rocks in a stream. They laugh together and after, he looks at her and says, Los Angeles, with the g like an h, the way she has said.
Claudia is quiet, and smiles and looks pleased and sad both. “Thank you, Ted,” she says after a while. And then, “Now how hard was that?”
He shrugs and she steps onto a big rock and looks up up up and louder repeats, “How hard was that?” her words echoing and spilling over them in the cool, arched shade. She turns briefly to him, gray eyes gleaming, then faces the belly of the bridge again and this time yells, really yells, louder than he has ever heard a girl yell, “How hard was that?”
She sags from the effort and her head hangs limp and then she rears back and cups her hands to her mouth, and still louder she shouts, “Does it matter if I mutter?”
Another burst of laughter escapes her, so clipped it is almost a cough. And then she is off into the park like a shot, and the boy, puzzled and laughing to himself and strangely happy, must struggle to keep up.
* * *
(originally published in Gentle Strength Quarterly #4)