A short story by Dan Domench with a brief intro.
(Writer's Note: This story is from Hope Narrows: Selected Short Stories. I wrote this after interviewing young gifted students. I tried to do two things in this story.
First, I tried to capture the stilted, formal language that some bright students use when writing their assignments. It is as if the student believes striving to write perfectly and clearly will lift them above their circumstances. Maybe they are right.
Secondly, I tried to show the subtle ways that students tell their teachers that things are going very wrong at home.
I hope this story honors the struggles of the young women I interviewed and I hope the story works for you.)
Our project is the Peregrine Falcon. My partner is Patricia Harding. She is making a poster. I wrote up the facts and gave them to her, but she has been absent this week due to an excused illness. We need a little more time before we make our oral presentation.
I chose the subject of the falcon because walking to school last week a park ranger was looking up at the grain silos with binoculars. He told me they released three Peregrine Falcons at the cliffs, but one flew away and made a nest on the tallest silo. The falcon did this because there are pigeons around there to eat. He was friendly and let me look through his binoculars. I used them to look back at my apartment building. It looked like a skyscraper, but it is only six stories high.
I remembered the book chapter you handed out. The one where Loren Eiseley wrote about his parents. I don’t want to present to the class all that I write in my science journal, but I want you to read it because I want you to know I understand what you are teaching us. Science is about observing everything around us.
I started my science journal the day I looked through the binoculars. I asked Patricia Harding to be my partner. She agreed the Peregrine Falcon was a good subject. Some people think Patricia agreed to be my partner because I'm good at school, but Patricia tells everyone she doesn't care about grades so that wasn't her reason. I did not ask Patricia to be my partner because she is popular. When Patricia came to school, I did not like her at first. She knew she was special because she is tall and everything else, but later on I could see there were things on her mind. I decided to be friendly to her even when she was in a bad mood. There is more to life than the way things appear. That is the first point in my journal: a scientist has to look past the obvious and investigate things.
It took me two days of calling around, but I finally reached the park ranger. I asked him to meet Patricia and me at the silos. I asked Patricia to dress a little different. No bare belly or shoes with her feet showing. No silver rings on her toes.
Patricia wore sneakers when we met the ranger, but her peasant blouse wasn't that great. It wasn’t something a girl could wear to school. I asked questions and he answered them, explaining things to Patricia.
He said in 1961 tons of feed corn were stored in the silos at the train yard for turkey farms. It was at this time that the rock doves, also known as pigeons, became a problem.
The ranger said they poisoned the pigeons and the chemicals killed the falcons and other birds of prey. The silos are abandoned and the turkey farms are closed, but the pigeons are still there.
He said it costs thousands of dollars to raise one falcon and release it. He did not have the exact figure. He went on for a while and I took notes, but I already had other information about falcons. He wanted to keep talking to Patricia, but we had all the bird facts we needed from the park ranger.
I wanted to show something to Patricia, to get her opinion. I asked her to come to my apartment. I wanted her to observe my mother.
My mother is fifty years old and even though she's old, she has boyfriends. She says she does nothing to encourage them. She says this all the time, but she likes the attention. My mother has problems. Sometimes she sits at the kitchen table in our apartment and cries, her hair messed up, her eyes red, but she looks good, like she's pretending.
I planned to interview my mother with Patricia. Was my mother aware of the falcons living in town? Was she aware of the history of her environment? I was looking at cause and effect. The turkey farmers didn't mean to have hundreds of pigeons in our town carrying diseases and making messes, but it happened.
Patricia didn't say anything about my mother's housekeeping. I know Patricia's house is nice. I’ve seen it from the outside. Her mother does hair. She has a pink sign on the porch that says, “A Cut Above.” Her front yard has a flower garden and a shiny blue ball on a pedestal.
Patricia didn't notice that my mother left the hamster cage on the kitchen counter next to the stove. This is my mom's way of making me clean the hamster cage. I never wanted the hamster. Loreen bought it for my mother.
I cleaned the kitchen table with a sponge and Patricia sat down. I brought out a shoebox of old photographs. I showed Patricia pictures of my mother holding me when I was a baby. Her bare arms around me. I showed her the boyfriends and the ex-husbands. They started out the same, looking okay. Then they changed, wore different clothes and suit coats and weird shirts. My mom bought them those clothes. She says people should wear things that fit their personalities. The backgrounds of the photos changed too. The different apartments where we lived. I showed her the picture of my father holding my hand when I was a little girl. His face is small and blurry. You would need binoculars to see his eyes.
My mother walked in with Loreen and I hid the photos. They came from a party and were feeling good. My mother was dressed up in her yellow jacket and skirt. She calls the color buttercream like cake icing. Her hair was in place, but her mascara was streaked and her lipstick smeared at the edges. When she kissed my cheek, she smelled like Chinese food and cigarettes.
Loreen did what she always does, walked around with her hands in her jacket keeping her eyes on my mother. Loreen wears suede work boots. She combs her hair down in front of her ears like sideburns.
My mother cooked herself a hot dog in the toaster oven and made instant coffee using hot water from the tap. Loreen opened a window, sat on the sill, and lit a cigarette. She offered one to Patricia.
My mother introduced herself to Patricia, shook her hand. They both looked tall standing in the center of the kitchen.
My mother talked to Loreen about the new guy chasing her, how he was screwing up his life. Loreen said he needed to be trained. My mother said he would look good in a cowboy hat. Loreen said he needed to be more considerate of others. My mother said he ought to shave his mustache. It went back and forth like that, Patricia listening.
After a while Patricia leaned over to me and whispered, I know why you brought me here.
I thought Patricia understood. I was sure our project was on track. I was excited about it, but in science, you need to check things. I told her we better talk in private. I led Patricia up the back stairs to the roof. I could hardly wait to tell her how great our presentation would be. We would plan together how she would tone down her appearance, make herself less of a dominant person. Different clothes and shoes. A new hairstyle, more natural. I wanted us to look good together in front of the class and to do a good job.
When we were on the roof, Patricia said, you are so much like your mother it is hilarious. She smiled at me happy about it. My asthma was bothering me. I couldn't breathe that good so I didn't answer. And anyway, there are millions of reasons why that’s not true.
I turned away and looked up at the silo. A white bird shot across the sky. It twisted side to side really fast. I pointed it out to Patricia, but she didn't care. She went back down to the apartment to listen to my mother and Loreen.
This is what I have completed so far with Patricia, but I am making further experiments without her. Every day after school this week, I took the hamster up to the roof and opened the cage door. I sat in the shadow of the chimney so I could not be seen from above and watched the hamster run around the roof. I kept my eye on the silo. I document everything in my science journal. My theory is, soon I will observe the falcon close up.
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