Palo Alto Weekly 20th Annual Short Story
by Kathleen Davis
The summer Clara turned fourteen started out no better nor worse than any other summer in her recent memory. It was 1929, times were hard, and she would be canning string beans at the San Jose Cannery again. The only difference, this year, would be the Graf Zeppelin's World Tour : it was scheduled to fly over San Jose on August twenty-second. Maybe she could write about it for the inevitable "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" essay. If the Zeppelin didn't appear, she would have to make something up, same as always. Maybe about pitching a tent at Girl Scout Camp in Yosemite. Or how much fun it was, learning to milk cows at Grandma's house. The kids who lived across town really did these things; she knew that for a fact.
But this summer, Clara wasn't envious. Let them pitch their tents, she told herself as they headed down Alma Street. It was opening day at the cannery. Beside her, Mama was pushing the twins, still asleep, in their buggy. Her sister Virginia - twelve now and old enough to work - trailed behind. Seven in the morning and the air was already soft and warm. The iceman's wagon creaked along beside them, his horse's hooves clanging on the manhole covers.
"Do we gotta do this all the way til school starts again?" whined Virginia.
"Have to. Do we have to. Yeah, but it's not so bad," Clara said.
"What do you mean?" Virginia shot her a look sideways. "All you did was complain the last two summers. About how you had to stand on a box all day, 'cause you were too short, and your fingers ached at night."
They trudged in silence for a while. Mama was up ahead now, so she couldn't hear.
"Your friend Frances will be there," said Clara cheerfully, "and Rita Molinari. Almost all the girls from the neighborhood will be working this summer!" Clara went on, amazed at her own enthusiasm. "We can talk and stuff. It'll almost be fun."
Virginia squinched up her face doubtfully, but Clara didn't notice. She was thinking about the hypnotist she had seen once at the county fair. He spoke to people in a soft voice and made them walk around and do things with their arms stretched out in front of them. Then he snapped his fingers and those same folks started talking and laughing again. Just think! Eight, nine hours of standing while you sorted and cut beans - they could go by real fast if you were in a trance. Clara smiled to herself. You would snap your fingers, and then your real life would start again.
What was her real life? It only took a minute for Clara to picture it, waiting for her in Miss Bailey's ninth grade art room at Washington Junior High School. Even before school had let out, Clara had begun hanging around, gawking at the collages, the lumpy clay figures, the blotchy watercolor landscapes. The smells were good: chalk, like the quarry where Papa and her brother Tommy worked, pure white against the sky; clay, familiar as the slick ochre path through rainy fields in springtime. Even the light was special to her, the hazy late afternoon light filtering through the windows and settling gently on her favorite prints: Raphael. Michelangelo. El Greco. Da Vinci.
Miss Bailey had found her standing there one day, staring at them. She had told Clara to sketch something every day over the summer. "Your work shows promise, Clara, so keep it up!" she had said. "It's like learning a new language. Your hand must keep moving, just like your mouth must say the words."
Clara remembered this, and repeated it wonderingly to herself whenever she could. She had asked her Uncle Domenic for a big roll of paper from the butcher shop, lugged it home and hid it under the bed. Every night she unrolled it a little more and practiced. Her canary, Toto, appeared first, a little lopsided, then the coffee pot, the outline of her hand. In Miss Bailey's classroom next fall, she would continue her patient work. Clara imagined herself sketching an apple or a pear, listening to the dull scrape of thirty-five pencils on the cheap paper. But her reward would be this: Miss Bailey would show her how to paint. Clara would learn how to hold a brush, light but firm. She would fill her paper with blues, reds, and greens clear as deep water. In three months, Clara would start her real life - as a painter.
Deep in her thoughts, Clara barely noticed that they had arrived at the cannery.
Clara grabbed the buggy and the paper sack, delivered Rosie and Louis to the old ladies in the nursery, and hurried back to Building Twelve. Mama had already found them a place on the assembly line. She put an arm around each of her daughters and bent down to be heard above the clatter. "Clara, I'll show your sister what to do, but you've got to look out for her, too. Keep her spirits up - understand?" Her black eyes tried to look stern, but Clara could feel the sadness. She wanted better for her girls.
So Clara showed her sister how to sort the beans by size; how to cut off the ends and slide them into the molds, slicing them to a uniform length. Grab a can from the belt, shove the beans in, send it on its way to the steam machine.
Clara's fingers remembered all this while she thought about the hypnotist and the people walking around in a trance. A softness started behind her eyes as she watched her hands go back and forth, back and forth. It grew quiet - until Virginia's voice broke in: "Hey, are these baby or medium size?" She was thrusting some beans under Clara's chin.
"Medium. See, they're longer than your little finger." Clara touched her sister's shoulder lightly. "Don't worry, you'll get it. If Rita Molinari can do this, it can't be that hard." Virginia laughed in spite of herself.
The day passed, and the next, and the next. At home, Clara crossed them off on the kitchen calendar after dinner.
"What's so important, Clara? School? The Zeppelin?" Papa laughed.
"The Zeppelin. I don't want to miss it," she lied.
Tommy was excited. "Everyone's talking about it. It's silver, like the moon, and there's a compartment underneath where people ride. We could wave to them - they might wave back!"
Clara had her own plans: she would sketch the Zeppelin, later adding color from the dimestore paints she would buy. It would be her first serious work, a way to show everyone who she really was.
In the meantime, Clara's fingers flew faster than ever at the cannery; Virginia was doing alright, too. It was Mama who, strangely, was slowing down as the girls worked faster. Sometimes she would raise her hand to her forehead and close her eyes. "Just tired," she murmured.
But on August nineteenth, Mama fell down at the cannery and lay with her eyes closed, breathing in hoarse gasps. Clara and Virginia were shoved aside when the medical workers arrived. They picked her up, still limp, and laid her on a stretcher. The last thing Clara saw was Mama's arm dangling over the side for an instant before one of the men tucked it gently under the blanket.
As in a dream, Papa's face appeared in the crowd. Clara stepped closer until she felt his big hand, shaking, pulling her head to his chest. With his other hand he clung to Virginia. "Go get the babies, Clara," he whispered. "We've got to get to the hospital."
Later that day the family learned that Mama had had a stroke. She might come home from the hospital, she might not. For Clara, there would be no school in the fall; Papa told her she was needed at home now. With those words, Clara's summer trance was shattered. Chaos rushed in on her: the twins were crying, neighbors and aunts filled the house, trying to help. Restless movement everywhere, noise - and in the middle, Clara stood alone, frightened and confused.
August twenty-second dawned with a clear light. An empty sky spread above the window as Clara stirred the family's oatmeal. Tommy and Virginia were already sitting at the kitchen table.
"I don't know. We'll be at the hospital; maybe you could look out the window or something." That was the best Clara could do for him. She had forgotten about her plans to sketch the ship, and the colors she would add. Everything was forgotten - even the long roll of paper under her bed.
So when the Zeppelin glided into view outside Mama's window looking close enough to touch, she stared at first, blank-eyed. Papa looked up; Virginia and Tommy were waving to the tiny faces underneath the ship.They didn't wave back. Clara knew those people were much too far away to see them standing in the window. It was a big, strange metal thing to Clara and it did not belong in her world. Still... her eyes filled with tears as the ship made its way slowly across the horizon. It was just about to dissolve into the air, a tiny bright point, when the sun caught it for an instant. The glowing point melted into a fiery rose, tinted with lavenders Clara had never seen before. Watching the colors fade, she tried to hold them in her mind so she could use them some day. She could paint the clouds, rivers, or even the sky - pure and endless on a summer morning.