Fiction / November 2011 (Issue 15)


Broken Numbers

by Sharon Hashimoto

Helen swallows her breath as the teacher hands back corrected multiplication quizzes. Mr. Taggert peers down at Jamie over spectacle rims, nods while he checks the name, flipping to the next paper in his stack. Beside her, Jamie whispers to Marie, "An eighty-eight! What d'you get?" Helen's shoulders tense: there's a high-pitched whistle as she inhales. Jamie and Marie giggle.

Helen clasps her fingers like a buckle on her lap. Mr. Taggert stands in front of her desk, a frown pulling at his puffy cheeks. A "D-" slashes its red across the top of her paper.

Mr. Taggert clears a corner and rests his buttocks on the edge of his desk, polishing his glasses with a corner of his suit jacket, "There was only one 100%." He pauses. "I won't say who," but his eyes are on Frances Takata, sitting with neat saddle shoes crossed at the ankles. Her sailor dress has white piping edging the square collar; her straight black hair is pulled back into a crisp ponytail. Frances Takata is the only other Japanese student in the class. Mr. Taggert's glance sweeps the room from front to back like a lighthouse beacon, catching both Helen and Frances in the same pass. When the school year and fifth grade began, she and Frances were the top two students.

The bell rings for morning recess. Helen stuffs the test into her math book, hiding the book in the desk's dark cave. She doesn't want to see where she has forgotten a decimal point or carried the wrong number. Mama made her study her mistakes, even in the quizzes in which Helen pulled B+s and low As. But on timed tests, she had to be fast. "A D-," Helen sighs. Everyone must know how stupid she is without her mother's help. Fingers rake through her bad perm.

At home, there had been all the drills on addition, subtraction, the multiplication table. Mama would hold up endless flashcards while they sat in the kitchen, the clock ticking towards ten pm, white counters reflecting the glare of the overhead light. Wiping dishes, Helen would repeat "six times seven is forty-two, six times eight is forty-eight, six…" and on until the numbers stuck in her throat. But Mama has a job now. There's no extra study time, just more cooking and clean-up chores.

Helen's handwriting is neat; she once read a part of John Steinbeck's "The Red Pony" in a papery voice without any mistakes. And before Mama started working on the assembly line at ACME Poultry, she would go through their old 1920s World Encyclopaedia and find extra credit projects Helen could do for science. "Watch," she had announced as she lit then dropped a flaming piece of paper into a milk bottle, then placed a hard-boiled egg on top like a stopper. As the fire went out, the vacuum sucked the egg down with a small pop faster than the four times she and her mother had practiced the trick. "Whoa," Michael had murmured, his friends around him nodding. Mr. Taggert said, "I commend your initiative," and gave her an A. Egg smell had lingered in the classroom for days. All during the experiment, Frances had watched with her eyebrows pinched together, her lashes flicking at the blue spark of the match.

Arithmetic is hardest. Solving problems at the blackboard, Frances never counts on her fingers. Helen knows she has to calculate her columns right to left in addition, subtraction and multiplication. But long division means left to right and she needs to "estimate." The textbook doesn't explain why she should guess. What is the difference, the secret she's supposed to understand?

Slowly closing the top of her desk, Helen watches Jamie and Marie race out to claim a tetherball pole. Four boys crowd around Michael who hides a Superman comic book beneath his plaid shirt. She inches by Mr. Taggert's thick back, his chalk squeaking out the next hour's reading lessons on the blackboard.

"Helen," he says, glancing sideways at her, his voice snagging her from the safety of the hallway. "We need to talk."

***

Helen buttons her navy wool coat all the way to the top even though the morning isn't cold. It's May and some girls are already wearing thin cotton dresses. Hands in her pockets, Helen keeps her fingers closed into fists so she won't widen the torn lining her mother was always re-sewing but finally let be—so tired after work and Daddy far away on a fishing boat. As she leans against the play court wall, the constant whomp of dribbling basketballs vibrates through the wood.

All around her, girls play four-square and tag. "Mabel, Mabel, set the table," chant the two enders who whip the jump rope faster as they get to the "red hot peppers." Helen lingers near the line of tetherball poles, walking its length. At the last pole, she stops, still seeing the grade book full of red checks and minuses beside her name.

A crow caws overhead. The raucous cry feels like all the questions inside that get tangled or won't come out. "Your grades have dropped," Mr. Taggert had told Helen. "You began so well. Is something wrong at home?" He kept asking questions Helen couldn't answer.

Helen looks up to see two blue jays dive bombing the crow, then lets her gaze settle on the second grade portables where Frances Takata plays hopscotch with two other girls. She's talking to the one with long honey-blond hair while the other, stockier girl throws the metal ID bracelet she uses as a marker. The bracelet lands on a yellow line. Helen watches the sailor skirt and ponytail flip and bounce as Frances hops five squares on one leg. The other two girls clap their hands as Frances bends her knee to pick up her marker and complete her turn without a miss.

"Who do you play with?" Helen remembers her mother asking after the first week of school. "Are there other Japanese in class?"

"One," Helen had answered. "Frances is very smart."

Helen's mother had looked up from scooping steaming white rice into their bowls. "Anata wa," she had started out. Then Mama had switched to English, "Be her friend. Help each other."

Frances pitches her marker, a chain of linked paperclips, too far to the left. Frances' head swivels towards the girl on her left and her lips mouth the words, "your turn."

Helen thinks Frances means her and starts to take a step forward, but the long-haired girl is jumping, landing with two feet firmly planted in the squares of the hopscotch borders. Then they wave politely to Mrs. Pendergast, the fourth-grade teacher they had last year.

Frances never walks to school. Her mother drops her off and picks her up in a light blue Buick. She's the only daughter in a family with four boys. Helen imagines milk and chocolate cookies on a pretty enamel plate waiting for Frances, and every day after school she sits eating them at the end of a huge rosewood dining table. Today, Frances will show her mother the multiplication quiz with the crisp "A" and "Excellent Work" printed in Mr. Taggert's bold letters. Frances' mother never helps her. Helen wonders, what is the secret to being smart? If they were friends, wouldn't Frances tell her?

***

Helen wants to raise her hand when Mr. Taggert asks, "What makes plants green?" She knows the answer is chlorophyll, but six other students lean forward on their desks, shouting "I know," stretching their arms like a picket fence blocking the sun.

Photosynthesis is today's lesson and the black and white diagrams in their science books illustrate the veins running through different leaves: maple, oak, birch. Closing the curtains, Mr. Taggert shows slides of leaf-form types: simple, abruptly pinnate, odd-pinnate, twice odd-pinnate. Helen writes down every word her teacher says. But she can't keep up. She only gets the beginning four or five words of his sentences.

"Leaves are like feathers," says Mr. Taggert. "There is a pattern and number of leaflets on each side of the stem."

Helen blinks and rubs her eyes when the lights are turned back on. She feels sleepy like her head has been stuffed with cotton.

Frances' index finger taps her chin as if she's doing story problems in her head, her eyes darting back and forth between Mr. Taggert and the blackboard. The ponytail sweeps Frances' shoulders like an opening fan and Helen remembers the one time her own short hair had been tightly pulled back in imitation, her tiny stub barely curling under. As if noticing her for the first time, Frances had stared at her and blinked slowly. It had been at the end of the school day. Home again to bring in mail and milk bottles, start a load of laundry, set the table, wash rice for dinner—only after Helen had seen her reflection in the living room mirror, did she notice the untidy tendrils and loose knot askew on her head.

Mr. Taggert thumps the pointer into the palm of his left hand. "Everywhere we look around us, we can see mathematical forms and structures." He picks up a piece of chalk to draw a stick character. "We have two ears, two hands, two feet…what else?"

Frances answers loudly, "Our hearts are divided into two ventricles and two auricles."

Giggles escape from Jamie. She slaps one hand over her mouth, the other points to the back of the room. Everyone around Jamie turns to catch a glimpse of Michael, his index fingers pulling down and slanting each of his eyes while his head rolls from side to side.

"What's so funny?" Mr. Taggert demands, pivoting to face his students.

The back of Frances' neck slowly grows red, but she doesn't turn around. Helen lays her wrist against her own cheek, surprised it feels so flushed.

***

There are fifteen questions for the Chapter Review on Decimals and Percents. Before the exam, Mr. Taggert had the class take out blue-lined sheets of paper. Standing with the stack of dittos in the crook of his elbow, he announced, "You have exactly one hour."

Helen rubs sweaty hands against the lap of her jumper. She writes "Helen Kayai" on the top line. The shuffling of paper quickly settles down; Mr. Taggert returns to his desk.

Helen frowns at the clock. Jamie is biting her tongue as her pencil erases a number. Behind her, she hears Marie turn back a page. Helen is only on Question 3 and she has forty-five minutes to go. How she performs is important; Mr. Taggert had said she could still save her grades, still do better than barely passing. All Helen can remember of his lecture were the words "I expect you to…" There was something about needing to pay attention, to ask for help. Mama said she was putting in overtime because she wanted to show her bosses that she's a good worker. Helen had been up late copying down what she didn't understand. There is so much to remember.

Shaking her head, Helen rereads the exam instructions for the third time. Scooting the second sheet beneath her answers, she can see the chart where she's lightly penciled in columns—tens, ones, a decimal point, tenths, hundredths, thousandths, ten-thousands. Carefully, she prints her answer: "100.06"

Michael sneezes and blows his nose loudly. Several students look up as Mr. Taggert pushes back his chair and rises to walk past the closets and bulletin board. The afternoon sunlight flares through the tall windows and beats against bowed heads. Frances raises her hand to ask Mr. Taggert a question.

Helen counts the dots her sharp-tipped pencil has made in a square like the four of a domino. Question 5 asks her to add: 2 + 0.4 + 1.15 + 0.0009. A shadow falls over Helen's answers, and she slides her palm and right arm over the copied textbook charts. The pencil continues to make faint counting marks and finally writes in a sum that Helen immediately tries to erase with short quick strokes.

Mr. Taggert says, "Hel-en!" His voice is like a hammer as it strikes the first syllable.

Closing her eyes and sitting straight, Helen imagines that for this instant, she's in a dream, her head rising up like a balloon. But Mr. Taggert pulls the notebook paper out from under her spread fingers. The pages slip away. She waits forever for the teacher to speak. Finally, she peeks at him to see her test answer sheet in one large veined hand, her copied notes in the other.

"My students should know better than to cheat," says Mr. Taggert. He stacks the pages on top of each other, ripping them in half, then into quarters, then eighths. Finally, he walks away and pitches the pieces into the wastebasket. The room is quiet. "Class," Mr. Taggert begins in a stern, throaty voice. He stands, knees locked, hands resting on his hips, elbows pointed to each side of the room. "You have fifteen minutes to finish."

The sound of pencils scribbling increases. The tops of Helen's ears burn, hidden beneath her hair. Everyone keeps their eyes focused on their exams. Marie writes, stooped over and hidden in the cloud of her curls. Frances is the only one who looks straight at Helen. Finally, Frances turns to the clock, then back to her exam.

The blue ditto sheet still sits on Helen's desk. She picks up one piece of paper from those fallen like leaves on the floor. She uses her sleeve to wipe it clean of Mr. Taggert's heel mark, then starts again with Question 1.

***

"I can't believe she came back to school today," Jamie hisses to Marie. Jamie's plaid lunchbox swings in sync with Marie's scuffed penny loafers. They don't hear Helen's light steps behind them; the hallway is crowded with other classes letting out for lunch. Helen lets herself be swept towards the cafeteria where gravy smells fill the air and utensils clatter against plastic trays. If she keeps her shoulders hunched and her eyes fixed on the floor, she can pretend she's invisible. I didn't cheat, she tells herself over and over again. I used my own answers.

All morning, nobody pays any attention to her. Mr. Taggert skips past her, asking Robert and Frances and everyone else to read a paragraph from "The Prince and the Pauper" out loud. Frances stumbles over "lineaments." Mr. Taggert corrects her pronunciation and asks her to repeat after him, "lin-i-a-ment, a distinctive characteristic." In social studies, the class is given the hour to work on an essay topic. Helen can't get past her first two sentences. Will Mr. Taggert call her up to his desk and escort her to the Principal's Office?

Nothing happens. Maybe nothing ever will. If she pretends everything is normal, won't everyone eventually forget? I didn't cheat. I only copied down some rules and numbers to help me remember. She won't get many points on the test, but Helen did three questions before turning in her answers. Shouldn't Mr. Taggert understand that I tried?

Helen clutches her three pennies for milk tighter. Seven students, some fifth and sixth graders she knows on sight, chatter in the slow-moving line. The Vice-Principal stands beside the new cashier, checking change. Helen pockets her money and slinks past Michael and the wall.

When Michael shouts "Cheater," Helen almost drops her sack lunch. She takes deliberate steps past several tables, trying to act like she doesn't hear. "You're stupid enough to get caught," Michael continues, his rising voice coming from behind.

Helen finds an empty seat just as Simon and Rudy finish half of their meat blanchette and leave. They never speak more than a grunt, but she wonders now what they're thinking. Do they know? Now she wonders if everyone thinks she's a cheat.

Helen opens her paper sack and unwraps her sandwich. Peeking between the slices she sees vertically cut Vienna sausages lining the bread. As Helen lifts the sandwich, mayonnaise makes everything slide.

Julianne is the only one left at the table; she stares at Helen. Her jaw drops as she makes a face. "Eww—what are you eating?"

Helen wipes her mouth after each small bite. The bread and cold canned meat taste dry without her milk.

***

Helen swallows. How hard she's tried not to cry, blinking and holding back the tears, standing straight in front of her teacher. He'd been disappointed, and angry. The sharp corners of Mr. Taggert's letter to her mother poke her palm. It's a stiff oblong and stark white; Helen is afraid to fold the envelope and place it inside her coat pocket. But she doesn't want to carry it out in the open for everyone to see.

What will her mother will say? First, she'll study the words carefully. Mama's fingers will rub the front of her apron.

"Mrs. Kayai," is written in block letters across the front. Without touching it more than she has to, Helen places the envelope inside her math textbook where it won't be crushed. In the empty halls of the school, her steps echo.

Three girls stand outside the double doors under the eaves. One door is propped open to let in the fresh spring air. Everyone else scattered for home after the three o'clock bell. The girl with long honey-brown hair speaks to Frances Takata. Helen remembers that she's her own age, but is in Miss Tobias' class. She tells Frances, "Your mom sure is late. Want to walk with us?"

Frances checks both directions on Graham Street, "She wouldn't forget me."

Their voices rebound as if at the end of a tunnel. Helen won't pass by the girls. But there's the nurse's office and the teacher's lounge if she changes her route. In the shadows of the hall, she waits for Frances and her friends to leave.

Sunlight glints on France's black hair as she shifts her books to her hip.

The stocky girl, Becky, sighs and yawns widely, without covering her mouth. Propped against the brick wall, she says in a lowered voice, "The whole school is talking about how Helen stole the answers right off of Mr. Taggert's desk!"

"And Marie told me Helen sneaks peeks to copy. Marie has to hide her work all the time." The long-haired girl tosses her head.

Dabbing her nose with crumpled Kleenex from her coat pocket, Helen feels her eyes begin to fill. Everything around her looks blurry. Helen sniffs quietly and hugs her books tighter. She feels her knee highs slipping as she sinks to a squat on the cold hard floor.

Turning towards her companions, Frances speaks in a sharp tone, "You're just as bad if you spread rumors."

"Rumors?" Becky demands.

"I saw Mr. Taggert take away her paper. I don't know anything about Helen stealing from Mr. Taggert's desk or what Marie thinks is going on." Frances' syllables sound clipped—the way Helen's mother sometimes speaks in Japanese.

Becky straightens up, shaking her head.

The long-haired girl twirls and twists a strand of hair. She examines the ends. Helen imagines her looping it around an index finger, playing with her lips. "Why'd she do it, Frances? Aren't both of you Japanese?"

Frances doesn't answer for a long time. She must be looking down the street, Helen thinks. An old Rambler usually parks on the side. The silver paint shows streaks of dirt. The two other girls don't leave. Frances finally says "No, I don't know why."

"She's so…weird," Becky offers. "Her clothes are all pieced together. They never match. And she brings all sorts of funny smelling stuff for lunch."

The long-haired girl adds, "She's not like you."

"Baka-tari!"

Helen slowly smiles, knowing the word. Idiots! That's what Mama sometimes mutters. She hears Frances stomps her feet on the cracked sidewalk. "Rakko eyes! Daikon legs! You have breath like natto!"

Helen feels a small glow. She cocks her head to hear more.

"Frances, what's wrong?"

"Go home, both of you!"

She must like me, Helen tells herself. She stuck up for me. She even talks like my Uncle Ichiro. Slowly smiling, Helen stands, then tiptoes towards the entry way. Peeking past the arch, she spies Frances sitting on the curb. Her books are stacked by her side. A red station wagon drives by, stirring up a small whirlwind of dust. Helen studies the white sweater, its long sleeves neatly cuffed. With the dark-haired girl's back to her, she feels brave. "Frances," Helen calls but her voice cracks so she says it again, louder.

When Frances turns, her face is all straight angry lines.

Helen blinks, then says softly, "Natto? I didn't know…"

You're so stupid!" Frances explodes, "I didn't know, I didn't know." The ponytail wags back and forth as she mocks Helen. "Mom makes me eat funyu just like you do."

Frances jumps off the curb to her full height. For the first time, Helen notices how tiny Frances is. She can see over the other girl's head.

"Do you know how hard it is?" Frances rages. "Being smart for both of us?"

Helen backs up a step. She holds one hand out, fingers lowered and spread apart as if to stop what's coming. She stutters, "I'm really sorry."

"But that doesn't do me any good! Does it, Helen?" Her name on France's lips look like a sneer. Helen can't think of anything to say.

Three blocks down, a blue sedan takes a right-hand turn onto their street. Frances swivels toward it, away from her. Helen stares down at her feet, at the long legs of their shadows. The cracks in the sidewalk seem to widen.

The Buick pulls silently to the curb. A woman, her black hair worn in a short bob, leans out the window. "You must have been so worried, Frannie. The dentist was running late and Bobby has to have braces." Then she looks at Helen. "I'm so glad you had your friend to keep you company. Is this Helen?" Mrs. Takata smiles brightly. "Can we give you a ride home?"

For a moment, Helen imagines Frances saying "Come on, then." Japanese are supposed to help Japanese, that's what Mama always says. Helen sees herself sliding onto the backseat. With Mrs. Takata there, Frances can't help but forgive Helen. In fact, Helen hopes, this is the day they become friends.

But instead, Frances sweeps up her books, opening the front door and climbing in quickly. "No, Mom. She has to go somewhere on her own."

Mrs. Takata's mouth makes a small "oh." "Then we'd better get going. Goodbye," Frances' mother waves as the Buick pulls away.

Helen counts backwards from ten, watching the sedan grow smaller. The speck of blue disappears. Clutching them hard, Helen presses her books against the ache in her stomach. No one is around to help her, except herself. All she can do is the same thing every day: walk to school, sit quietly at her desk. Stay invisible. Inside her winter coat, she shivers. She closes both eyes. Through the lids, she sees the sun's red glare.

 
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