Anthem: Larisa Yugorski
I am 9 years old. I wear a black wig of synthetic hair. A strip of white runs down either side. Mrs. Erickson has given me the canvas chair. I drum my thumbs against its arms as I wait for her to call the class to order. Halloween. Orange wrapped candies. I watch Taryn and Seth nudge each other expectantly. They sit in front of the window through which the sunlight streams. An unseasonably yellow sun. If I were going to write a fictional account of this day I would have to change the light; butter yellow does not a proper horror mood create. I clear my throat and rustle the notebook pages on my lap.
The Cat, the Devil and I.
My first novel.
“Alright class, let’s give Morticia our undivided attention.”
“Go, Lari!” Seth shouts.
I grin with a magenta mouth. I am not Lari Yugorski. It is Halloween. I am transformed. I sit up from my hunch and bring the pages closer to my face. Lari Yugorski would be afraid to read in front of her 4th grade class. But Morticia Addams is brave. I lick my lips, clear my throat (again), begin:
“T’was a dark and stormy night.”
Ten months later: The words of my mother. “You’re not trying at all, honey. If you want to be happy then you have to try to be happy here. You’ll never make new friends otherwise.”
Oh I have friends. Taryn. Katrina. Seth. I am funny. I am the novelist. People want to hear my stories: “Maybe you could write a sequel,” Aaron said to me in the coatrack a few days after my marvelous turn as the literary great Morticia Addams. “It could be a sequel where Cat battles the grim reaper. He’s the devil’s right hand so he would pr-pr-probably be made at Cat for killing the devil.”
“Yeah, sure, Aaron. Maybe.” An inelegant response. My first thought had been: The grim reaper? Please. What a stupid idea. But I was flattered. Tendrils of happiness licked at my arms. People liked my story. They liked it so much that they were going home and writing alternate endings in their heads. They wanted a sequel.
It didn’t matter that I had no intention of writing it (the devil, after all, was dead). The point was that I had written something that sparked my classmates. We stood together in an imaginary world of my creation. Who cared if they saw other things beyond what I had intended. Wasn’t that, after all, the point?
“Writers don’t need editors, Larisa. A good writer knows exactly what they want to say and slaves over their work until they get it right. Hemingway sat for hours at a chair over his typewriter. Grey. Black keys with white letters. He sacrificed. And he was the genius of a simple sentence. A. Simple. Sentence. Do you even know what a simple sentence is?”
I am standing outside with my father, a great hulk of a man in a grey T-shirt. It remains ten months later. We have already moved. And just as the conversation with my mother shows, I hate this new school. I hate this new place. I blame my parents; they wrecked my happiness and dragged me away and then made me feel guilty for feeling angry.
“Larisa.” My father with the piercing eyes. “Do you know what will happen if we don’t move?”
I sit on the floor—a brown rug—holding Valjean the puppy in my hands. He has grey-blue eyes. His spotted nose burrows into my palm. “No.” I say, not meeting my father’s gaze. I shrink my shoulders down into my white t-shirt. It is a hand-me-down from the neighbor. Underneath a screen print of dirty track shoes it reads: Play like a Girl. Doesn’t mean what it used to.
“We will have to give the puppies up.”
“You said we were selling Valjean anyway,” my sister, Anna, says. The light from the dining room reflects two luminescent rhombuses—one covering each eye behind her glasses. Our father raises his arms:
“So what are you saying? You want to lose them all?”
Anna is 7. I am 10. Why are we being tricked into deciding the fate of the family?
“A simple sentence?” I ask.
My mother rubs her hand against my back. “Honey, I know it’s hard.”
“No you don’t,” I sit up to scream at her but my voice is choked. I am crying like a stupid baby. The wet from my eyes burns hot on my face. “They don’t know me here. I had friends before. Mrs. Erickson was going to work with me. She was going to help me with my writing. No one—”
“Mrs. Pietra thinks you’re a good writer.”
“It isn’t the same,” I answer, dragging my arm under my nose. I look down: snot, an opaque that cakes.
My mother sighs, pulling away from me. I grab her arm. “No please don’t go.”
“No, Larisa. I’ve had enough. You need to stop whining. You’ve been doing your best for months to make the worst of the situation.”
“It’s not even October yet,” I murmur to my hands. The fingernails are bitten down to the red fleshy tops. I curl them underneath the edge of my shirt; I get in trouble when I pick my nails. Why can’t you act like an adult?
“—and your father is happy to help you with your writing.”
“I’ve read your writing, Larisa.”
Flash forward to the outside. The memory of my father and I standing in the green grass turning grey from frost. The trees move. They do not throw down their leaves; it remains a bit too early. Bit too early. Too much?, I wonder. Too many qualifiers? How many adjectives does a simple sentence allow?
He steps closer to me and begins to gesticulate with his hands. I hate when he does that. Waiving around. Leaning over me. I am only a handful of inches shorter than him. And yet. But still—
The right hand flaps.
The left hand moves.
I blink my eyes hard. Don’t flinch.
Don’t be a baby.
Larisa, act like an adult.
Stand up straighter.
“I’ve read your writing, Larisa, and you have no idea how to write a simple sentence. A simple sentence is the most important tool in a writer’s tool box.”
I watch, riveted—the left hand moves in the shape of rectangle. The right hand draws the sides and the left hand finishes up with the lid.
The memory breaks.
I inhale. The air is sharp with a damp edge and an aftertaste of smoke. I still stand in the middle of the field. Where has my father gone? Somewhere. I do not remember. I hold a stick in my hand.
A. Simple. Sentence.
I kneel down and pull at th
e grass. Did Aaron care about my lack of simple sentences? Taryn? Katrina?
“You know,” my father cackles at the dining room table, driving the serrated knife into the brown steak covered with bits of black from the coals. As the knife slices through, blood seeps onto the plate. It swirls around the buttery fat, pools underneath the baked potato. “There was a time,” he starts again, piercing the cut piece with the fork. He raises it, opens his jaws, pulls the piece from the silver. He looks across the table at me, eyes glittering. “I used to think every book on the New York Times Bestseller List was trash. If a book was popular, if a lot of people read it and liked it, I knew it was worthless. What do people know about quality?”
I watch him spitting flecks of red and brown.
I do not know what he is trying to say.
The words feel muddy. The content remains uncertain. But I am certain from the context that I am meant to feel small. Unequal. Unworthy.
Later, I sit in my room. In front of me is a school assignment: A picture of a ramshackle three story house, latticed Victorian style.
“I want everyone to write a story. Inspired by this drawing. Color in the lines if it helps. But everyone should try to write a story. Even you Sean McMenomy.”
Sean has brown hair and an assured smile. He plays football with Brady Zion at recess. Half the girls stand around and watch. I am not among them.
“Where did you live before?” Nicole drawls in the bus line.
“Where’s that?” Krista flips her hair.
“Oh not that far. Up by Moundsview.”
Blank brown eyes staring.
“They called me Lari,” I try again.
I could explain. “Bus number 12!” the lady at the head of our line calls.
“Larry,” Nicole snickers.
“It was just a nickname,” I mutter to my shoes. My friends gave it to me. My friends. I was supposed to be in Mrs. Little’s class for 5th grade. Instead I am stuck here.
“I expect a good story from you, Larisa,” Mrs. Pietra had said as she laid the picture of the broken down old house on my desk.
“Yeah,” I looked up. Sure.
Her black eyes were two small beads and she meant well. I could tell by the way she almost smiled. She of the old school: strict, solemn, severe. Loved.
But, now, alone and in this new home planted at the very edge of this new one-horse town, I feel the panic slowly rise. It clusters around my throat, pulling at my vocal cords. I tap my pencil on my notebook.
“Writers don’t use pencils. They use pens.”
“But what if I want to erase and start over?”
“Writers want the record of all of their attempts, Larisa, to refer back to.”
I sit and look at the open notebook. Should I go get a pen? I don’t have any pens; the only ones on my school list were erasable and wouldn’t that defeat the point of what my father said?
Pen. Erase. Pencil. I try to start writing with the pencil but my hand shakes.
The house was abandoned. No, weak beginning. I need something catchy. The wind creaked and caught the lattice in its grasp. (I read the word lattice in a book). The wind blew through the trees, whose outstretched hands shaped like claws grabbed at the sagging door of the – No. Dammit. Nothing is right. I pull at my hair. I pick at my left thumb where the skin grew in thick and scabbed.
“Don’t pick it, Larisa.”
I raise my thumb to my mouth and bite down hard, the blood seeping in. Why couldn’t I do it? It had been a prompt before: Mrs. Erickson standing in front of the classroom, grinning at us all as she said, “I want each of you to begin a story. You can write about anything. Halloween. Winter. Christmas in July. But you must begin with the same line, the one that Snoopy uses in the comics but never finishes.” Her voice lowered then and I remember thinking that it was as if she became an old woman wise—a sage—dressed up in human clothes to bring us a message. I remember leaning forward in my desk—waiting. “T’was a dark and stormy night.”
Oh the possibilities bound up in that one line!
“What are you doing?” the door of the room opened.
I jump. I throw the pencil across the room.
“Homework. Math homework. That’s what I’m doing.”
“Leave this door open,” said my father’s voice. “We need to know what you’re doing.” Ka-thud, ka-thud, ka-thud. I hold my breath, listening for the sound of the television in the basement. NYPD Blue. I scramble to my knees, lean toward the door, turn the knob and close it shut.
I never wrote a story inspired by the old Victorian house. The dictum of the simple sentence haunted me. It was a decree that haunted my pencil. I started many stories, even one I called a “new novel.” But I never wrote more than a page. I remember trying to tell my mother, trying to explain how much what was happening frightened me.
“That’s writer’s block. It happens to the best of writers. It will be okay. You’ll move past it. Just be patient with yourself.”
There I am, sitting in the car. The only time I get to talk to her alone is when we ran errands. Otherwise, my father hears and begins ranting about the “simple sentence.”
The great art.
The refined art.
The thing I could never do. How could I explain, when he lurked over me, the hundreds of worlds that awaited at the other end of my pen? The honeyed breath with which the characters spoke? The thick brocade in which they walked? Witches, goblins, swords. How could he possibly expect me to contain those words in one simple sentence?
I did not write again until a project in 7th grade for a teacher who believed, like my father, in the one rule. And that 7th grade story? A sad and picked over bird. The 7th grade teacher applauded it, declaring it as evidence that I could, in fact, write. My father greeted it as the shape of things to come. I remember hating it. The only line I loved was the description of a sunset—purple and red. Of course, I had to cut it down. When I received the assignment back, I hid it in a folder. Like a severed hand. A monkey’s paw. To me, it meant something broken.
“But that is the power of the simple sentence,” he would nod, eyes glazing over as he looked up and away over my head, “You say nothing and everything. All at the same time.” The wind shook the trees. This time, it was late enough in the year to make a cascade of mustard leaves all fall down.
“Are you writing anything, right now? Your mother says–“
“No. I’m not writing anything. There was something but it was just a stupid haunted house story project for school. Extra credit. I’m not working on that right now.”
“Yes,” my father leaned against the yellow arm of the metal rake. “You should focus on more serious material. A Farewell to Arms. That will teach you about the simple sentence.” He smiled, looking over my head.
Later, I hid my 4th grade novel away in a box with cloth books, pencils, crayons, old dolls. I remember clasping its pages with my bloodied and picked over fingers. Did I know how long it would be before I would take out my writing again? Did I know how great the fear of a critical reader would become?
“A simple sentence, Larisa.”
That’s what everyone loves.