This Little Light
I didn’t set out to be the town luminary. True, there wasn’t exactly a lot of competition in Casper. I nailed that down halfway through fifth grade with Mrs. Potts. She was an apple-shaped woman with a tight perm and cankles. I remember her as a round, fluttery circle, her hands fanning herself when excited, which was often, and her double chin quivering with joy when we started the unit on Important Literature. Now that I’ve read all Dickens’s work, I find it a tidge insulting that she pretended we were reading the real Great Expectations instead of that condensed rot in our reading workbooks, sandwiched between poems about caterpillars and rainbows.
“Children.” She rapped a few pudgy knuckles on the chalkboard for silence. Completely insulting, calling us children, even though Lyle Woodruff had just been sent to the office for accidentally sealing his lips with rubber cement. “Group work should not be this noisy.”
My group that day was a threesome, a horrible mistake given the rules of adolescent friendship. One of the three is always a runt, and that day I was conspicuous in my social station. I remember staring at Misty Warren and Angela Hopkins, both of them well into their full-throttle journey toward uselessness. Misty paused in a detailed analysis of her own cuteness and narrowed her eyes in my direction. She scanned my side ponytail and freckles with a practiced disdain.
“What are you looking at, Orphan Annie?” She cocked her stilllife Aquanet bangs, eyes flashing.
Angela snickered, too hard, so it sounded like a snort. She turned nearly as red as Mrs. Potts, who had waddled over to our group.
“Young ladies, how are you finding Mr. Charles Dickens?”
Missy shrugged. “Boring.”
Angela nodded gravely. “I don’t get it.”
Missy added, “Yeah, I mean, why can’t we read what we want to read? Like the Sweet Valley High books?”
“You really should stop that,” I said, staring the way my mother always said made her nervous. “I can hear the snot rumbling around in your nose.”
Misty turned slowly to face me, as if just then, regrettably, she’d remembered I was there. She pulled her upper lip into a sneer and said, “You. Are. So. Disgusting.”
I turned to Mrs. Potts. “I like the book.” I pointed to the open Dickens on my desk. “Estella seems like an interesting character.”
Mrs. Potts raised what was left of her overplucked brows. “How so, Nellie?”
I shrugged. “It looks like she’s going to represent something. Maybe the conflict between rich and poor, or the irony of being beautiful but having nothing going on between the ears.” I tapped my own head conspiratorially and nodded toward my group mates. Angela and Misty slouched within their diminutive desks, chins tucked into their necks in indignation.
“Oooh, well, let’s use building-up words,” Mrs. Potts said, but her fluttery hand went back to work near her throat. She began to splotch. “Nellie, I must say, in all my years of teaching sixth grade, never has someone had such an excellent and astute literary analysis so early into our Dickens unit.” The jowls were in full quiver now. “Frankly, I’m shocked. Impressed, that is. Delighted. You’re quite the literary luminary.”
I could feel she was waiting for my response to that word, which sounded pretty good but had not come up yet in my word-of-theweek flip calendar. So I shrugged, as if luminary was as frequently used in reference to Nellie Monroe as weirdo, dork, and nut job.
Misty Warren popped her gum to break the spell. Mrs. Potts dispatched her to the trashcan at the front of the room, and Angela jumped up to shuffle alongside though she couldn’t chew gum with braces and rubber bands.
Mrs. Potts patted me on the head as the bell rang for lunch. “Excellent work, Nellie.”
A luminary, I thought as I picked up my Trapper Keeper. Later that year, I’d flip my calendar to the word swagger, which was precisely what I did on my way out to the cafeteria.
Mrs. Potts might have admired my literary prowess, but she was conspicuous in her affection. Most people in town seemed confused by me (clergy), scared of me (teachers) or irritated by me (peer group). Misty Warren, for example, seemed perpetually annoyed whenever I raised my hand in class, took a stab in the dark and smiled at her, or asked for a pinky dip into her Carmex. That last one sent her through the roof.
I had my theories on the reactions I brought out in folks. For one thing, people in Casper didn’t know what to do with a person with two middle names. Provincial, I know. But Nellie Augusta Lourdes Monroe was just one too many names for them. I’ve had a few grandmothers in my day, and my name shows the wear and tear of that whole family drama. Grandma Nellie died long before I was born but grew up on an unyielding farm in Nebraska before marrying my sinfully wealthy grandfather. Nellie was known for a sharp tongue and flaky piecrusts. Such a shame which of those gifts my own mother inherited. Augusta was my paternal grandmother who smelled like cinnamon and Old Spice, her favored cologne because she believed it to prevent cold sores and bad breath. (I assure you she was incorrect on both counts, though it does attract mosquitoes.)
And Lourdes was just an afterthought tacked on during Mother’s brief flirtation with Catholicism.
As a nod to my childhood demographic, I didn’t even make people flip the r in Lourdes. They should have out of respect for the French and Mary and all that, but I knew to pick my battles around this town. Even without the French r, official ceremonies were always struggles. The pastor at my confirmation kept calling me Nellman Augusta Loor-deez, even though he’d known my family for years and even dated my mother in high school. When I got my driver’s license, the woman at the counter burst into laughter when I pronounced Lourdes the correct way. I was rather offended, though I felt better when Pop assured me it was a great honor to get an Ohio DMV employee to laugh.
The only people who said my name correctly were Nona and Tank. Nona deserved extra kudos, as she was the one grandma I was not named after. She was the last in an impressive line of divorcee grandmas, lucky number four of the wives who endured my grandfather, Allistair Byrne. Alli, as I’ll call him since I never had the pleasure of meeting his smarmy self, was quite the ladies’ man. It helped that he inherited a pot of money from his own father, Casper’s railroad tycoon and town miser, Seamus Byrne. Nona met Alli, married Alli, and was disdained by Alli all within the space of five years. Just after the divorce was final, however, Allistair clutched his heart during an otherwise uneventful board meeting, slumped in his maroon leather chair, and was gone. My mother, newly postpartum and burdened by grief, asked Nona to move into the Byrne estate with her and Pop and the new, colicky baby named Nellie. Mother’s only explanation at the time was that Nona was “the only one that had been worth the Byrne name,” presumably nixing her own mother and perhaps her father, too, though no one clarified. She was in mourning, after all. At any rate, Nona arrived with a trunk of clothes and a strong hug the next day and had never left.
So Nona knew how to say my name. And Tank, well, he was just about the only person who didn’t irritate me over long stretches of time. This was the reason I continued to work for him at a ridiculous job with ridiculous people.
“Morning, Nellie,” he called out when he heard the screen door slam that first day of the summer season.
“Good morning,” I said as I fished out my time card from the slot and gave it a decisive stamp of entry. “First day of summer, Tank. How are you feeling?” I asked the question but could have lip-synched the answer.
“Eighteen holes to be CONQUERED, and all is well with the world.”
Tank’s response, the same every season opener for all the years I’d known him, reminded me of my high school phys-ed teacher, Ms. Stricken. An unfortunate name for a woman in her place of employment— a high school, the land of the unforgiving. Ms. Stricken was memorable for two reasons, neither of which had anything to do with my education under her wing: (a) her adult acne, another blow to the name issue, and (b) the joke she told every single first day of class. In total, I heard her gravel-voiced delivery eight times in four years. It never improved: “Wear gym shoes only, no black soles. Three tardies equal a detention with me in the wrestling room. I promise it will stink. And lastly, don’t wear shirts with beer logos on them. Makes me thirsty, heh heh.”
After decades of this pep talk, Ms. Stricken still taught at Casper Senior High. If I had any passion for children, which I didn’t, I’d try getting her fired. But I had other aspirations, serious aspirations that had nothing to do with this sleepy town.
“Nellie? You listening to me?” Tank leaned over the front counter, poking his head down where I crouched on the floor folding a pile of chamois.
“Sorry, Tank. I was just thinking about high school.” I continued stacking the towels but heard Tank sigh.
“Oh, man, were those great years or WHAT?” Tank tended to raise his voice on words he deemed in need of emphasis. I’d seen it annoy people, but I kind of liked it, particularly when he yelped my name. It was an affectionate yelp.
“Your dad and I, that year we won state, good GRAVY, were we on top of the world.” The sun-carved wrinkles around Tank’s blue eyes framed an animated jog of his memory. “Last hole of the day, down by two strokes, and your dad had to putt. Nobody can PUTT like your dad.” He shook his head, lost again in the glory of state championship golf, ’77.
“I don’t know about that, Tank,” I said. “I’ve seen you dominate the green.” Part of being a luminary is knowing how to speak other people’s languages, even if it’s something as inane as golf. Multilingualism isn’t just about el español, people.
“Ah, NELLIE,” he barked, slapping the counter. “Just one of the reasons I love ya, kid. You know how to build up an old man.” He clapped me on the side of the head, a habit I’d tried in vain to break in him.
“Tank. The head.” I pointed to my afro. “Please.”
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, striding toward the line of golf carts standing sentry outside. “What am I supposed to do, though? Hug you? I’m not a hugger.…” I heard him mutter to himself as the screen door slapped behind him.
In his defense, no one really knew how to respond to my hair. Perhaps slapping it was Tank’s way of trying to tame it for me. For starters, I was definitely Anglo-American—three-quarters Irish and one-quarter Miscellaneous Pale, to be exact. That could throw a person straight off, because the wiry curls on my head werent often seen on the kind of girl who burned to a crisp every single summer, beginning on Memorial Day and barreling right through Labor Day. Secondly, my hair was orange. Not auburn, not strawberry blonde, not russet or anything else out of an Emily Brontë novel. It was orange, and I’d come to peace with it. There were a few years in there when I let Mother drag me around to hair salons in the area, once even driving as far as Cleveland in an effort to straighten, dye, thin, or otherwise subdue the mop she was sure came from someone of dubious moral standing on my father’s side. I was fairly positive the expenses incurred ran into the thousands, all of which would likely come out of my inheritance. Around about ninth grade, though, I put a stop to the whole charade and told my mother I was happy with my hair. I remember her literally choking on her biscotti, her eyes bugging as she said, “Happy with it? I don’t understand.” Not many do, I suppose, but I just didn’t see any point in trying to make me look any different than I do. It’d be like trying to clear a patch of rainforest to plant a prissy English garden. Sometimes nature just keeps kicking back, in the jungle and with kinky Irish hair.
I twisted one strand around my finger and slapped it back with a bobby pin. I kept a plastic case of them next to the cash register for just that purpose. By three o’clock on a high humidity day, if I had nothing with which to rein it in, my hair extended to the size of a Thanksgiving platter all around my head. Men and women alike, filtering in after a hot round of eighteen, had been known to find the strength to gasp.
I was pulling out a fresh box of mini-pencils and a stack of scorecards from the storeroom when I heard a human or large animal rustle behind me. I whirled around, screeching like a ninja, and slugged the rustler right in the gut.
“Aaargh!” I yelled again, even after I saw the rustler was a young guy in jeans and a T-shirt, doubled over and not looking particularly dangerous. Still, a girl needed always to establish the Alpha Dog in an attack situation.
“I am sorry I am late,” he said, struggling to get a full breath. It really was a great punch. “The walk was longer than I thought.” He looked up at me from his hunched position, and I could sense immediately that this was no predator. I wasn’t sure he’d even started shaving.
“Are you hurt?” I helped him straighten up.
“No.” He cleared his throat. “But you are a strong kind of woman.”
I rolled my eyes. Flattery would get this kid nowhere. “You really shouldn’t sneak up on people. I’d recommend speaking rather than skulking.”
He looked at me. “Skulking?”
This was the kind of conversation common to a literary luminary. Always, always defining words. I was a walking, afro-ed dictionary.
“To move in a stealthy or furtive manner.”
See what I mean?
“Like you’re hiding something.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “No, I don’t hide things.”
“Good to hear. Now, what can I do for you?”
He jumped when Tank came slamming back in the front door. “You must be Amos.” Tank charged for the boy, hand thrust out for a vigorous shake. “Glad you could GET here.” Tank turned to me and winked very slowly, which is something no grown man should attempt. Could make a person think he’s having a stroke.
“Nellie,” he said slowly, “Amos here used to be AMISH, isn’t that right?”
Amos nodded once and started scanning the room with a pair of enormous blue eyes.
Tank continued talking in his helpfully slow speech. I wondered if he thought Amos had also fallen out of a tree and needed to be spoken to in a might-be-a-few-coconuts-short voice. “He, like so many of his people, is very good at CARPENTRY. So I’ve asked him to help me fix up a little mini-golf course down by the koi pond.”
“I see,” I said, relieved to finally hear about The Project. Tank masterminded one every year. The koi arrived a few summers back, though the first two batches died unceremonious deaths due first to overfeeding and then to a chlorine incident. We also had the windenergy experiment, which was shut down by the electric company, and last year’s karaoke night, which will likely resurface down the road.
“Mini-golf, eh?” I said, watching the blond kid through the slits of my eyes. I’d been trying out that look lately to inspire intimidation in the interrogated. “You know a lot about mini-golf, Amos?”
“Absolutely, no, I do not.” He shook his head. “Mr. Tank said he wrote the plans for me to make.”
I rolled my eyes, disgusted by his honesty, so typical of people around here. “That’s cool,” I said by way of good-bye. I returned to my counter, hearing Tank enunciate his plan to Amos as they left through the back door.