“This part of the feather, where it attaches to the bird’s bone, is called the calamus.”
Sometimes Carlene filled in for Ms. Okum because Ms. Okum had chemo treatments. She’d lost her hair, but she only missed the ends of Fridays.
Carlene could not add a lot to a science class. A few bird facts. She’d bring in a feather she had found or a nest that had fallen to the ground. The class was lax. Final period. She liked getting to be in a room with Fia for the second time in a day.
They were almost neighbors. Fia’s father Reginald taught social studies at the school. The name sounded imperious to Carlene. He told people to call him Reg, but he looked like he winced when you said it. Carlene knew no eyes like Fia’s. They absorbed the world. Blotting paper in ocular form. People often bored Carlene, even her husband Jake. Not that that was his—or anyone’s—fault. She found connections rare, but she did not like to think that was because she was smarter than people, though she understood quietly that was a big reason. It had been Jake’s idea to open up their marriage. Carlene never thought she’d be an open marriage person. They both dated women, but never the same women, everything kept separate.
But Carlene could watch Fia watch the world and never get bored. She felt as if it were possible to stretch forward her hand and feel the thoughts in motoric motion as Fia looked at whatever she was looking at, formulating internal sentences, ideas, strips of knowledge as if weaving a highly personalized, durable basket to tote what was necessary to a stellar future. She lived four streets over and she read the books that the other children read in a fraction of the time, but she still stayed after school with Carlene as Carlene helped the kids who struggled with Shakespeare.
Fia did not struggle. When no one in class could understand a line by the Bard and the students became pouty and picked their fingers, Fia would sometimes stand on her chair in the back of the room and translate the words into more modern English, acting out a part of a scene to boot. She was at her best with an air-drawn dagger.
That made everyone laugh, the girl less than five feet tall, spinning about on the limited platform of her seat-based stage.
Tension broken and focus restored, Carlene continued. As each head dipped back down over its owner’s book, she’d nod a little smile toward Fia, whose eyes were held in brief abeyance in these moments, ready to resume their absorptive pursuits upon acknowledgement of a connection that needed no formal acknowledgment. Carlene knew that was the best kind, even if it had been new to her. Fia simply knew.
In science class on a Friday when Carlene filled in for Ms. Okum, Mark Renner, the fake tough kid who really just wanted more people to say hello to him, passed the feather that Carlene had brought in to Fia, who was the last to receive it, and said, “Put this in your ass, Hobbit.”
Fia launched from her seat, pulled up the bottom portion of her Joy Division T-shirt, and said, “Look at those abs! Hobbit my ass. Each one of those abs could make a fist and pop you in the mouth. Bitch. That’s fitty,” she concluded, drumming her stomach with a small, balled hand.
Fitty was her word for “fit,” Fia later explained, when she had walked over to Carlene’s house to return a volume of Coleridge’s Shakespeare criticism, and it was also her word for badass. In the classroom, the feather, forgotten, had fallen to the floor, and the children crowded in a semicircle for a closer look at those prodigious abs, as Fia became Fitty forever in that moment.
“I still think it’s a winning phrase,” the young girl said in Carlene’s yard, blades of grass between her toes, which she bent and twisted, wondering how much practice she’d need to tie a knot, as they discussed what Fia viewed as exciting phrase-making, and exciting writing.
“Well, Fitty,” Carlene began, saying the now-official name, “I think you can find a better one.”
They sat on plastic, mildew-streaked chairs with sun-warped arms, not too close to the sprinkler but close enough that it wet Carlene’s calves and the bottoms of Fitty’s feet when she stretched out her legs. The Coleridge had been tossed out of the water’s way under a birch tree, and Fitty thought about saying how maybe if you planted the book a tree might grow there or conceivably a weed because Coleridge could give off a weed-y vibe, given that he seemed awfully critical of most things he read.
“Go ahead, hit me with it again,” Carlene resumed. “Get it out of your system.”
Fitty had premiered the line a few days earlier after school, in Carlene’s classroom, with the building mostly empty. Her friend Martha needed help with Macbeth, and Fitty wanted to memorize exact lines and scenes and where they came in the play so that she could recreate them in her head.
“You feel bad for Macbeth at the end,” she had said. “This poor bastard, being force fed into the mouth of reality like that.”
She said the line again on the lawn, only slower, like her tongue required extra time with it.
“What? It’s good. It’s a winning line.”
“Don’t force feed people into the mouth of reality.”
She paused and blinked, in mock surprise. “Are you upset you didn’t come up with it?”
“You know me so well.”
“But you have to admit,” Fitty finalized, the conjunction being her way of conceding the point, the water again at their legs and feet, “I read the absolute fuck out of some of those scenes, don’t I?”
“Of that there is no doubt,” Carlene said, and the child’s laughter lodged in her brain.