Learning Curves

Learning Curves by Patti Santucci


Our Story

*previously published in American River Review Literary Magazine

yellow dress

A tall man and a little girl walk into a bank on, say a Tuesday, although it should be a Saturday with all the teenagers milling around the parking lot among the Priuses and the Volvos, sporting CoExist bumper stickers and spilling out gaggles of children.  So we’ll make it summer in one of those Northern California coastal towns where the women wear long, flowing skirts and the men sport long, flowing pony tails and the kids have perpetually dirt-smeared faces and eat gluten-free bread.

     The tall man wears polyester pants and orthopedic shoes. He is the guy in the grocery store who sings For Sentimental Reasons off-key but it doesn’t bother you because you can just tell he has this magnificent love story inside him and you’d give your last ten bucks to sit with him on a park bench and drink in his story. The little girl, marveling at her black patent Mary Janes, the lace ruffles, trimming her socks, bouncing with each skip, reaches up and takes the man’s hand while she converses with her imaginary friend named Fred who always wears green stripes and only eats ice cream. 

     They should be having one of those Norman Rockwell kind of days. You know what I’m talking about. Those kind of days that you didn’t recognize as particularly special until they were behind you. They’re the days compiled of colorful snapshots that sneak up on you when that certain song plays on the radio, or the smell of freshly mown grass wafts in your direction. A day you cling to as your loved ones move away or pass on. A memory that slips in bed with you when you’re sick or makes you miss the exit on the freeway.

     Yeah, let’s make them have one of those kind of days.

     They fall into line between the velvet ropes and wait their turn while the little girl spins in circles, her yellow dress flaring wide and twisting against her waist as she stops short, slapping her shiny shoe on the carpeted floor, asking the tall man if this is the house where money is made, and if it is, could he please buy her one because her friend, Elsie, needs a giant birdhouse for the blue jays in her backyard that get cold in the morning.

     Now let’s say there’s ANOTHER man in the bank who’s pacing and sweating as the banker lobs phrases at him comprised of familiar repeats like I’m sorry sir and my hands are tied sir and the man’s face and eyes are red. His khaki Big Ben work shirt is dark with sweat down his back. His Levi’s are held up over hips too thin that hang by a belt that’s down to its last hole. Words like divorce, repossession and bankruptcy dive bomb him from all angles like a swarm of angry yellow jackets. He smacks the desk, screaming about working hard his whole life, about needing just a few more days, about harassing phone calls and notices, about calling an attorney everyone knows he can’t afford. He collapses into the black leather conference chair, the one with the shiny, wood veneer frame where loving, young couples celebrate as they sign mortgage papers for their first home, where eager teenagers nod in agreement as their parents co-sign on their first car, where his final attempt at redemption hangs asphyxiated as he bends forward, his elbows digging in his knees, his head sinking in his hands, where he sobs openly in public for the first time.

     Then let’s have the tall man nod to the little girl and watch as she slips beneath the velvet ropes because she sees the clear crack in the man’s heart, in a way only children can. So she approaches, without any fear that the angry yellow jackets striking him might sting her too.

     Now I know that it’s highly unlikely that the tall man steps over the ropes and whispers for her to go ahead but this is our story and we can change the ending. We can remove the gun that the man slipped in between his waistband and the small of his back when he left the house this morning. We can crawl inside his pocket and tear up the suicide note he’d written to Lucille and the kids. We can erase the balding county coroner, in his signature navy windbreaker, who might, in say an hour, sign off on six, make that, seven bodies.

     Yes, we can have that little girl who believes fairies are the only ones who place dewdrops on giant green leaves in the morning; who whisper dreams in your ear at night just before you fall asleep, reach out to him, a stranger, and squeeze him with all she’s got, her face scrunching and smiling because she knows that he needs a piece of her heart to mend his.

     Let’s have that little girl reach into her purple purse and remove her clear plastic smiling frog, the one with the tiny red heart floating inside, and fold it into his hand as she forces eye contact and tells him, with a truth in her eyes that is hard to disbelieve, that Mr. JoJo will make everything better. That she wants him to have it because she knows it works because Sarah Perkins stopped picking on her the first day she took him to school. Because Mr. JoJo helped her find the ring her grandma gave her, the one with the balloons on it, the one she thought she’d lost, under the beanbag chair in the living room. Because he was with her last Thursday, when Mrs. Simperelli gave a surprise quiz on the most ridiculous spelling words and she got 100%.

     Because, sir, you cannot buy luck like this even in the house where they grow money.

     Remember, this is our story. Won’t you just believe with me, for a minute, that a plastic Mr. Jo Jo and a long hug from a little girl with ruffles on her socks can posses the power to pull a man free from the bottom of his black hole? That a kind of magic could envelope and blanket his khaki clad shoulders and completely erase his troubles. That innocence could triumph over pain with one touch, one gesture.

     Just for today, on this Tuesday that, remember, should really be a Saturday, can we give the three of them, and maybe even ourselves, this one magic moment, that Norman Rockwell snapshot, to hold onto and believe in? I’m telling you it could happen if we just make it so.

Double Digits

“Yea, I can come!” Brittney said. “This is going to be so much frickin’ fun!”

I held my cell phone tight to my right ear as we talked, dangling my feet over the edge of the dock, feeling the cool water lick my ankles. Tomorrow will be my 10th birthday, a biggie by anyone’s measure. Brittney and I talked about the huge sheet cake my mom was getting and I confided in her that I had over sixty balloons to fill, the big surprise for the end of the party. We talked about who was invited, who was coming and who was getting nailed with the most water balloons.

“I bet Robbie throws all his balloons at you!” she said.

Brittney and I had talked long and hard about Robbie. His dark eyes, his cool clothes and the way he could make milk squirt out his nose and, at the same time, play what sounded like “Who Let the Dogs Out” with his arm pit.

Robbie wasn’t from around here. He had come here from California which is 2,160 miles from Peshtigo, Wisconsin.

I looked it up, twice.

I watched four cranes take off from the weed bed across the river and asked, “I wonder if he was ever in the movies?”

“Probably,” she said.  “He is from California.”

“Chloe! Your dad’s home!” my mother’s voice rang across the river. I didn’t even have to turn around to know she was standing there, in her apron that said “Kiss the Cook” while she held the screen door open, waiting for me to get in the house.

“Gotta go. My dad’s home,” I said into the phone and clicked the End button.

“Coming!” I yelled back, holding my phone with one hand and scooping up some river water with the other, dabbing the back of my neck, as I ran toward the house.

I was glad to have Dad home now. He had lived somewhere else for a while. Mom stopped wearing perfume and spent a lot of time in her room when he was gone. Now, he comes home everyday from work around lunch time and, since its summer and I don’t have school, we all get to sit down and eat fried chicken or steak and sometimes he even brings home a pizza, the expensive kind from the Palm Tree Pizza Company.

“What’s up ChloeChloeDavidBowie?” my dad said as he picked me up and swung me around the kitchen. I was, I thought, a little old for that but I liked it anyway. He says David Bowie and me are gifts from God, music to his ears he always says.

Mom sat the meatloaf in the center of the table and said, “Tomorrow is the big day, huh Chloe?”

“Whatcha got going on?” Dad asked.

Trying to keep my face from frowning, I looked at my Mom and she said, “Bruce, don’t be mean. You know its Chloe’s birthday tomorrow!” I watched as she rubbed his left shoulder.

“Hah! Got ya!” Dad said to me. “You think I would forget double digits?” He paused. “Remember that magician you told me about? The one that Jordan had at her party?”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling all tingly inside.

“Well I talked with him, worked my magic a bit and he’s coming to the party! He has a bunch of new tricks. Of course, he’ll do a few of the good ones he did at Jordan’s party too but he’s been working on some brand new, never seen before, super cool ones!”

“Are you kidding?” I screamed and looked at mom who smiled at me but I could tell it was a surprise to her too. “Oh my God, this is the best present ever!”  I ran over and gave Dad a big hug. His face got all red and he smiled making his dimples show and I poked my fingers in them like I used to do when I was a little girl.

Somehow I managed to sit through lunch and eat what was on my plate but Mom could tell I was antsy and wanted to call Brittney back.

“Go ahead,” she laughed and excused me from the table.

I called Brittney right away. Jordan always had the nicest parties and now mine was going to be even better. Water balloons AND a magician! I called everyone who’d been invited saving Robbie for last.

“Hello.” Robbie said, his voice sounding like cotton candy and root beer.

“Guess what Robbie? I’m going to have a magician at my party tomorrow. It’s gonna be awesome! You’re still coming right?”

“Yea. I got you a present. My mom’s gonna drop me off at eleven.”

My heart stopped. I hadn’t even thought about what he would get me for a present. Robbie is getting me a present. I let that just sit in my head and that tingly feeling was back full blast as I spelled out Robbie + Chloe with a stick in the dirt.

“Super!” I said grasping for something, anything to say as this weird silence hung in the air. “I gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow!”

See you tomorrow? That’s the best I could come up with?

“Okay. Talk to you later.”

I said bye not wanting to but, let’s face it, there was nothing else left to say.

I hung up the phone, danced, twirled  and spent the rest of the day picking daisies and pulling the petals off in that “He loves me, he loves me not” game. I imagined what our house would look like and how many kids Robbie and I would have, that is until I realized I had nothing to wear.

At first, I was going to wear my yellow shorts with my Harry Styles T-shirt and my sneakers but after talking with Robbie, I decided on my dark blue sundress.  I knew I would be able to dodge all of Robbie’s water balloons if I wore my sneakers but, really, did I want to let him miss me every time? Besides, a dress would be prettier and all the magazine covers say dark colors are slimming.

Dad came home and we had supper and watched TV while Mom finished up a baby blanket for my new cousin, Oscar. Nothing exciting about the evening but I couldn’t sleep. I had put my hair in curlers and didn’t want them to fall out so I tried to lay real still but that just made my head itch and when I tried to think about something else to forget about the itching, I came right back to Robbie and my party.

Mom and I got up really early and strung yellow and purple streamers she’d bought at Dollar General in all the trees so they hung mid-air over the table and then dangled balloons from some of the branches. Next, we strung up the huge banner we made. Yesterday, Mom and I had spent hours cutting out the letters, gluing them to the construction squares and decorating them with silver glitter. Mom brought out the One Direction tablecloth, paper plates, cups AND napkins and laid everything out on our picnic table. By myself, I dragged some palettes over and made a stage for the magician and then cut out little red construction paper triangles to trim the edges. We had some silver confetti left over and my mom was going to sprinkle it on the table but I asked her if I could put some on the stage and use the rest to throw up in the air when we announced the magician. She didn’t answer right away but then agreed after thinking it over.

We stood back and stared at all the decorations, the giant pink box that held the huge chocolate fudge cake in the center of the table, the streamers, the balloons, the stage. It was all just perfect!

The first car pulled up and Brittney jumped out with a big pink and yellow present for me. She stopped just before reaching us to look at the decorations. She looked at me and squealed, “It’s frickin’ beautiful!!”

I knew as soon as it was out of her mouth, our day was doomed. Brittney’s mom hated, and I mean hated, the word frickin’.

“Brittney Lynn,” her Mom said sternly from the car.

“Sorry,” Brittney said, standing very still.

Our moms looked at each other and smiled and Brittney and I both knew that it was with an “aren’t-these-kids-cute-heavy-sigh” kind of smile and not an “embarrassed-you’ll-be-in-trouble-later” kind of smile.

Everyone showed up. Carol, Jodie, Kylie, Jordan, Madison, Joey (‘cuz my mom said Robbie shouldn’t be the only boy) and, the last one to arrive:  Robbie. He smiled at me when he handed me my present and I think he said he liked my dress but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to ask him to repeat himself but I think I said thank you before he walked over to the picnic table. My head was swimming.

We played Charades, ate hamburgers and then my mom said everyone could go swimming in the river. I was so surprised when everybody peeled off their clothes and had their swimsuits on underneath.

“Surprise!” mom said. “I knew it was going to be hot today so I called everyone and told them to bring their suits. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” I said. “That’s frickin’ awesome!”

She just laughed and shook her head.

All of us took turns jumping off the pier doing our best cannonballs and measuring who had the biggest splash. Robbie could do backflips off the edge like an Olympic gymnast. He said it was easy and that he could teach me how.

“Cake and ice cream, anyone?” Mom yelled and that caught everyone’s attention. It felt like I floated from the river back up to the picnic table.

Mom started to light the candles and it dawned on me. “Where’s Dad?”

“He had to work but he should be here soon,” she said and then began singing “Happy Birthday”. Everyone joined in and I made a wish that Robbie would teach me how to do backflips. I blew out all the candles in one breath so I know that wish will come true.

Mom started slicing the cake and handing out pieces. She came to the corner piece that had the most frosting and I quietly reminded her to give that piece to Robbie.

She winked at me and we watched Robbie’s eyes light up.

“Thanks Mrs. Stewart. Frosting’s my favorite part!”

Mom kicked me under the table and we both tried hard not to smile.

After cake, we broke out the water balloons. Mom and I had spent forever filling each one and had piled them in two baskets. I watched as she struggled to get them all to the safe spot we had agreed upon.

“Now there are enough balloons for each of you to use six, so use them wisely. The battle field is just beyond those two birch trees and all the way down to the riverbed. Throwing any balloons within the safe zone will get you disqualified so wait until you clear the trees. Look around out there, there are lots of places to hide.” Mom clicked on the portable CD player and the theme to the Hunger Games began. She cleared her throat and in her best Claudius Templesmith voice said, “Let the games begin and may the odds be forever in your favor.”

We all ran toward the baskets. Some of us grabbed two balloons at once; others took only one and then sprinted off to find a good hiding spot. I watched which way Robbie went and followed through the trees.

“Arghhhh!” Madison was the first one hit and she ran back for a second balloon.

I hid behind some bushes and tried not to make any noise. I heard Robbie laugh and Jordan cry out, “You butthead!”

Robbie joined me by the bushes and said, “I just got Jordan!”

We looked at each other and smiled.

The theme music continued to play in the distance, the sound of water exploding followed by laughter played in the air. Robbie took off again, with his second water balloon in tow, looking for his next victim. I followed, nailing Kylie in the back.

I threw my other balloon at Joey and missed and then noticed something strange. Robbie was hiding, holding his balloon and not throwing it even though Joey and Brittney were in the open. Jordan returned with her balloon and hid behind a tree. Robbie caught sight of her, snaked around the back and threw the balloon on the back of her legs.

“You…” Jordan yelled and started chasing Robbie.

As my grandma always says, “I wasn’t born yesterday.” I knew what this all meant and sure enough, Robbie used almost all of the rest of his balloons on Jordan.

I ran back and got the rest of mine and quietly pierced them behind a tree.

Mom called game time and everyone crept out of their hiding places soaking wet.

“Wow Chloe!” Robbie said. “You’re good at this game. You didn’t even get hit!”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Robbie, look at my hair,” Jordan said. Her long brown hair was wet and she had piled it high on her head. Strands started to fall and I realized then that I had never noticed how pretty Jordan is.  Everybody laughed as she grabbed a particularly wet strand and made believe she had a beard.

My dad’s red pickup pulled fast into our yard, kicking up dirt, making a big announcement; at least now the magician was here. We all turned as my dad’s car door flung open, each of us holding our breath just waiting for the guy in the tuxedo to get out of the passenger’s side. Instead, my dad folded out of the truck in slow motion. I watched as he weaved toward us. The closer he got, the tighter the knot in my stomach got. I tried to stop my face from reddening. I tried to stop my eyes from tearing but I knew what all this meant.

“ChloeChloeDavidBowie,” he yelled slurring his words and catching his foot on an overgrown tree branch.

“Who’s David Blowie?” I heard Jordan whisper to Robbie.

“Hey kids! The magician sends his apologies. He got sick and is unable to attend this fine, fine party.” He threw his arm out in a grand gesture and burped loudly, then mumbled, “A’scuse me.”

Please, please stop talking. Mom shot me that one look that I had long forgotten about. She walked over to him, put her arm around him and said, “Hey, you hungry honey? All the kids wanted to save you the biggest piece of birthday cake. Let’s go inside and find you something to eat.” It was the same kind of voice she used when my last dentist appointment was over and she was trying to get me out of there before I started crying.

“Really?” Dad said, the slurring getting worse; his legs turning to rubber. “You kids are the breast. I mean the best.” He covered his mouth with his hand, laughed way too hard and said, “My bad,” drawing his leg in like a bashful schoolgirl. He winked, snapped his fingers and pointed at me, “Double digits! Par-tay!”

Mom ushered him inside and everyone stood staring at me. I wanted to run, to hide, but then there had been Mom’s look, that look that said: This is the last time, I promise.  I wanted to disappear, to melt, to fade away but I just stood there. Brittney clapped her hands and said, “We have presents to open,” in that happy voice she uses when she feels like crying.

Brittney handed me presents and I opened them and hoped that I looked happy. I just kept picking up a present, unwrapping it, thanking everyone and going on to the next one. My mom came back out and “oohed” and “aaahed” each time I pulled the paper away as she handed out popsicles. Mom said, “Happy Birthday” and raised hers in the air. Everyone at the table raised theirs too and then pretended they were wine glasses and clinked their popsicles together like a big toast as if we were grown ups at a dinner party. The heat began melting them before everyone could finish and drips of purple and red ran down their arms which made me feel like crying again.

Parents started pulling up and it was a good thing as no one was really having a good time anymore. One by one, my guests disappeared until only Brittney was left. Mom gave me a long hug, kissed the top of my head, and went back in the house without a word, just a long exhale as she wiped her hands on the back of her jeans.

Brittney and I went down to the pier where just less then an hour ago, Robbie had told me he would teach me how to do a backflip. I didn’t really feel like talking but that’s the thing about best friends. They just seem to know and can stay quiet with you so you aren’t alone.

We sat there until a summer rain began to fall. The rain came hard and fast but we didn’t budge. Mom didn’t come out to check on us. I knew she was trying to get Dad onto the couch so he would just fall asleep in front of the television set. She was probably laying that ugly brown and yellow blanket over him and placing that big silver barf bowl next to him and when I went inside to get my sleepover stuff, she would probably mumble something about him not feeling well. Whatever.

I mean, I’m a little old for that.

The rain stopped just as quickly as it had started leaving the air super muggy, heavy and tight like last year’s Christmas sweater.

“You okay?” Brittney asked.

“Yea,” I said, just staring down watching the water bury my feet making my toes disappear, wishing the rest of me could too. “Do you think I could spend the night?”

“You know you can. My mom said anytime was fine with her.”


The laughter and play that had filled up the river was long gone and now a stillness just sat next to us, the occasional click of a snapping turtle the only noise breaking the silence.

“Hey look,” said Brittney, “a rainbow.”

It was one of those big, beautiful rainbows that fill the sky and reflect off the water and we studied it for a long time without talking.

“Do you think the other side of a rainbow, the side no one can see, is dark and gloomy?” I asked.

“No way. It’s colorful no matter which way you look at it,” she said quietly trying to meet my eyes and then added brightly, “My mom says it’s the reward for making it through the storm!”

I smiled back but knew that was only true for some people.

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