As a follow up to last week’s post about the need for education without neglecting one’s passion, I am posting an excerpt of my short story, “Cut Above the Rest,” from my collection, The Human Act and Other Stories, published by All Things That Matter Press. It is a story about a young woman whose desire to finish her undergraduate education at Harvard is thwarted by a lack of funds.
After hearing from her Harvard friends only once and not having any luck finding a job as an entry-level economist one-year short of a degree, Becky decided to enroll at the Santa Rosa Beauty College and become a licensed cosmetologist. With her long brown hair pulled into a simple bun and her face without make-up, Becky emerged as someone quaintly mature in a crowd of aspiring hairstylists with cherry bomb red hair and powdered white faces dressed in gray smocks and black leather shoes.
Some of the students Becky recognized from high school. Rodriguez, a slim young man with black hair slicked straight down his back and a goatee on his narrow chin, teased her. “Our Lady of the Perpetual Frown,” he said, narrowing his slanted eyes and laughing. Tina, whom Becky remembered as a high school drop out with a drop-dead figure even after giving birth to twins at seventeen, squealed in unison with Melody, the class clown, who called Becky, “The Harvard Could-Of-Been Graduate.” Assaulted by cruel jokes and mean laughter, Becky focused on washing her mannequin’s head with fierce concentration, often yanking the synthetic auburn hair until it snapped from its plastic skull.
Later, after six hours of cutting and dying and perming and styling, Becky went across the street to Triumph’s Pub for an Irish cream coffee. Her favorite part of the day was sitting beside the iron black wood burning stove and watching the sun set through the picture window and the fairy lights of downtown ignite like fireflies. Becky had moved out of her parents’ home in August after months of sullen silence. Her father, who had disappointed her before, tried to apologize with sweet, encouraging words. “Einstein said imagination was more important than knowledge,” he’d tell her.
“You should have imagined $12,000,” Becky would snap. “Then I wouldn’t be wasting my life with a bunch of goons and styling gel.” Becky’s father would stare at the broken lip of his wing-tipped shoes. “I’m sorry,” he’d say. Becky had heard the words before, when her father had stolen a Barbie doll for her birthday and had been arrested for shoplifting. Even though the charges had been dropped, Becky never forgave him. “You can’t control yourself,” she’d say.
By September, when her Harvard friends were buying books for classes, Becky started a part-time job at Johnny’s Pool Hall as a coat check girl to pay the $300 rent for a room in her former high school math teacher’s home. In her pocket, she kept a love note from Chase, a girl Becky had met at a sonority party, written three months before Becky’s Harvard career ended. “I love the way you look when you study,” Chase wrote. “It makes my palms sweat like I’m working out.” Although Becky had her mail forwarded, she never received another letter from Chase. She tried hard not to think of the bulky football girl who had tackled her heart and won. Becky also tried not to think of her father. The one time she had dropped by to visit she had found him slumped over a set of cards at the dining room table, shuffling and reshuffling, contemplating how much he was going to bet in a game against himself.
Since then, on nights when she wasn’t working, she lounged at Triumph’s Pub and watched the night deepen into a relaxing atmosphere of couples playing darts, drinking their third Guinness, laughing with their arms linked around each other’s backs. When the couples left toward midnight, Becky would order a heavy rum drink she called a zombie and let her mind dissolve into foam. Dizzy with grief and unexpressed longing, she would kiss the stuffed head of a smiling moose before falling asleep on the black leather couch until Zero, the bartender, woke her up at 2 a.m. when he closed.
“Need a ride tonight?” Zero would ask.
“No, I’ll call home,” she’d say.
In the dark amber hall with its dense wood-paneled walls and mirrored plaques emblazoned with the names of imported beers, Becky would drop a quarter and a dime into the pay phone and dial Bob Stone’s number.
On her second day back from Harvard, Becky had waltzed across the campus of her old high school and had stepped into Mr. Stone’s third period calculus class and cried. Disconcerted, Mr. Stone took her aside and drew a horizontal line with arrows in both directions. He placed a dot above the line and said, “Sorrow knows no infinity.” When that did not comfort her, he said he would think of something that would.
Weeks later, after dinner with Mr. Stone and his wife at their cozy restored Victorian, he invited Becky to move into the room behind the garage which he had used as an office once, then later converted into a bedroom for his teenage daughter, Sarah, who was attending U.C. Berkeley on a volley ball scholarship. Unaware of any complications, Becky unloaded her trunks and filled the dressers with her T-shirts and jeans, believing in the peacefulness of new beginnings. Only Lucy, who missed the routine of motherhood, would nag Becky about little things: eating the last piece of bread, misplacing the measuring cup for the laundry detergent, reading Shakespeare out loud. After a while, Becky tired of the accusations. She spent very little time with the Stones, perhaps one evening a month in front of the big screen TV with a movie she had rented and microwave popcorn she had bought at Food 4 Less.
When Becky called for a ride home, it was Lucy who often answered in her sultry after hour’s voice. Since Sarah had left for college, Lucy took sedatives and mood-regulators for a peculiar disorder that quavered through her body in tiny ripples, causing her to overreact to anything that might break her fragile routine. Becky, who was too drunk for a fight, would hang up the phone.
“I’ll drive you,” Zero always said. Becky shook her head, refusing his kindness. In the winter, Zero would stand under the awning with Becky, holding an umbrella over her shiny brown hair until she was safe in the cab. Neither one spoke. Sometimes, while they were waiting, Zero would drape his coat over Becky’s shoulders and press her close until she stopped shaking. In spite of a dark bulk that intimidated strangers, there was a tenderness about him that radiated like warmth from his hands.
When educational dreams fail, it is difficult not to fall into despair. But life is full of switchback turns and detours and unmarked roads. If we surrender to faith and believe in the beauty of the unexpected, we can learn to transcend our disappointment and embrace the opportunity to live the life we have been given, whether it has been chosen or not.
Sometimes we are blessed with guides who appear at just the right time to help us maneuver around the potholes in the road, but most of the time the people we need have always been there, visible and neglected from familiarity or pain. It is only when we reach a moment of awareness that things become new again and life breaks open with hope.
To read the rest of “Cut Above the Rest,” purchase an electronic or paperback version from any online retailer or directly from .