Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Things We Like the Best

Julia Lee Pollock


Natalie climbed her basement stairs at a leisurely pace and breathed a sigh of relaxation. It was nine-thirty on a sunny Friday morning, and she could go into work whenever she got good and ready.

Natalie used to teach sixth grade at a little country school, where she wore long denim skirts with crisp cotton blouses, and whirled around the chalkboard with her gold chalk holder poised in her quick hands. She liked the smells of the old country school as she walked through the front door each morning. As she passed the cafeteria, she savored the aroma of bacon and sausage, and most of all, the smell of piping hot coffee, luring her to come and drink. Each morning when she entered her classroom, she got a whiff of chalk dust mingled with old musty books, new Crayola crayons, Elmer's glue, and magic markers.

Natalie liked all of these things. She liked it when the principal watched her obedient class march down the hall and into the library, and she liked it when the librarian bragged on her well-behaved students. Natalie liked being viewed as a smart authority figure who mastered the English language, and she liked to stand amid all the library books in the little country school and feel that somehow, if she merely stood in their presence long enough, knowledge would absorb into her very being.

Yes, Natalie liked her teacher role, but something annoyed her. There was something she longed to find, some missing piece, something she was supposed to do.

So Natalie quit her job at the little country school and went to work in her husband's law firm two days a week. The rest of the time, she piddled around. Oh, sure, she told people she helped her husband, and she told people she was busy at home, and she told people she quit teaching to stay with her two sons, who were, by the way, in school, but what Natalie really did most of the time was piddle. And she loved it.

At nine forty-five, Natalie pulled her mini ironing board out from under her bed, plucked a khaki skirt from her closet, and took off her white terrycloth bathrobe and flung it onto her bed. She wore only a pair of orange soccer socks that went up past her knees. She already had her makeup on, and she felt fresh and vigorous, like a firm, ripe peach.

As Natalie ironed, she sang "I like Bread and Butter," in a real sassy tone of voice, and her Siamese cat stared at her from the windowsill. Outside, the air was crisp and the skies were solid blue. It was early fall, and Natalie was in the mood for a pumpkin.

Natalie turned off her iron, held the skirt up next to her body, and posed in front of the mirror. She smiled a cute little smile, puckered her lips at herself, and released the skirt, which fell to the floor. Then, Natalie pulled off her orange soccer socks and stood naked in front of the mirror. She studied herself from head to toe, then turned around and looked at her backside. Finally, Natalie bent over and touched her toes and viewed her reflection in the mirror with her upside-down head between her legs. Whatever Natalie was looking at, her cat was looking at it, too.

Natalie stood up straight and walked over to her underwear drawer. She pulled out a pair of white cotton panties and a white cotton bra, put them on, and admired herself once more in the mirror. She gazed approvingly at her reflection, turned, and walked away. Natalie put on a white blouse and stepped into her skirt, smoothing it down over her hips and giving her brown hair a good shake. She turned out the light and grabbed her loafers on the way out of her bedroom. Her pumpkin was waiting.

Natalie drove to The Pumpkin Patch, a large produce stand west of town, where they sold ornamental gourds, squash, Indian corn, October beans, and pumpkins. She smiled to herself as she reminisced about previous class trips to The Pumpkin Patch. Natalie had enjoyed her friendships with the other teachers, and she loved the thrill of leaving school for a field trip. Sometimes she missed her teacher identity. After all, it was predictable, and it provided her with comfort and support. But Natalie longed for the thing it did not provide, and she was determined to find it.

Often, when Natalie went shopping or to church, she ran into some of her old school associates.

"Don't you miss teaching?" the teachers would ask.

"Where are you teaching now, Natalie?" her principal would inquire.

"Why don't you come back?" her students would whine.

Natalie always replied, "Oh, I'm working for my husband and I just love it. I wanted to spend more time with my boys, and catch up on things at home. Besides, I was ready for a change."

The teachers would look at her with envy or incomprehension. The principal would respond obligatorily, just as he had asked obligatorily, and the students would just look at her, and say, "Oh."

Natalie always exuded confidence when she spoke of her career move, but inside she wavered. Had she done the right thing? And how was she to know for sure if she had done the right thing? If she died right now, how many people would send flowers to her funeral?

Natalie pulled into her driveway and pushed the button on her garage control. She whipped into her spot, just the way she liked to do when her husband wasn't around to raise an eyebrow.

She carried her pumpkin upstairs, placed it in the middle of the table, and savored the beauty and simplicity of the moment. Before her on the kitchen table sat Halloween, Thanksgiving dinner, autumn leaves, Jack Frost, and Cinderella all rolled into one. Natalie felt thankful for the time to think such lovely thoughts. It was twelve o’clock noon -- time to hush and rush her students into the cafeteria.

Pumpkins were better.

Natalie walked into the kitchen to fix herself a cup of soup. Her teacher calendar sat on the shelf above the stove, and she read the words of wisdom for the third day of October: Freedom has its price.

Natalie smiled and poured herself a cup of vegetable beef, then walked over to her kitchen window that overlooked the garden. The sunflowers were dead and drooping, but the okra stalks were still green and full of pods. "Next year," she thought to herself, “I’ll plant my own pumpkins."

She finished her soup and walked back to her bedroom and changed into her old faded Levi's and her husband's thermal underwear shirt without once looking into the mirror. Then, she curled up under a patchwork quilt on her bed and took an afternoon nap while her Siamese cat watched her from the windowsill.

***

Julia Lee Pollock is a seventh grade English teacher in Columbia, Tennessee. She also writes feature stories for area newspapers, and she has just completed her first novel. In addition, she writes short stories and songs, and she is a member of ASCAP.

© Julia Lee Pollock

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012